Lemurs spotted on Florida's Sanibel Island

8:22 AM, Sep 17, 2013   |    comments
A ring-tailed lemur is difficult to miss with its distinctive markings.
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Sanibel, Florida (News-Press) -- When the first visitor reported a couple of ring-tailed lemurs crossing the road near Blind Pass last month, it was tempting for officials to shrug it off.

After all, with their characteristic striped tails and humpty-backed walk, it might be easy for a Sanibel island newbie to confuse a pair of fast-moving skinny raccoons with the primates, which are native to the island of Madagascar, off Africa's east coast.

"That first call was dismissed as not credible," says Holly Milbrandt, the city's environmental biologist - in fact, so unlikely as to be "sort of ridiculous."

The second sighting was also pretty hard to believe. Again, a visitor had spotted a pair of animals -"they called them ring-tailed monkeys" Milbrandt says - headed across Tarpon Bay Road toward the Bailey Tract.

But the third lemur report was harder to brush off. It came from city employee Ken Kelly, a legislative assistant who likes to visit the captive ring-tailed lemurs at Fort Myers' Pet Kingdom.

"Caught me completely off guard," he says. "It was around 5:15, and I was leaving work for the day and I heard all this rattling in the bushes. When I looked, I saw one on the ground and one sitting on this tiny bridge near the parking lot. I was just about 10 feet away so I got a good look at them - they were a little bigger than the ones in Pet Kingdom - before they took off. I had a bunch of stuff in my hand, so I couldn't get to my phone in time to take a picture."

If it does turn out lemurs are roaming Sanibel, the city will work with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to decide what to do, Milbrandt says - probably catch and move them. She thinks it's most likely that someone let them go on the island or they're escaped pets, though none have been reported missing.

Thanks to their fuzzy coats, big golden eyes and black button noses (remember King Julian in "Madagascar"?) ring-tailed lemurs easily win human hearts. They star in zoos and preserves around the world and in Southwest Florida, live at the Naples Zoo, North Fort Myers' Shell Factory and Sanibel's Periwinkle Park Campground, - and yes, all of the park's lemurs are accounted for.

"First thing I did when I heard was I went right down and made a quick count to make sure everyone was there," says Dick Muench, the park's owner. They were indeed, he says, and since then, Muench has been on the look-out for the at-large pair. Because the lemurs' piercing cries carry up to a quarter of a mile away, it's possible the at-large pair might hear them and pay the captives a call.

With rounded fingernails instead of claws and fused lower teeth, Milbrandt doubts the lemurs pose a major threat to humans, "though we do want the public to be safe."

"If they've escaped from somewhere, they're probably more scared than we are," she says. "We just want to be sure the animals are safe. It doesn't make sense to just let them fend for themselves."

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