Sad about the Coach K retirement news? Cheer yourself up with some lemurs.
After being closed to the public for more than a year, the Duke Lemur Center is finally reopening for tours on Friday.
Tours will only be offered to individual, private groups of maximum 10 people, and visitors will be required to wear masks. Visitors can choose between the standard tour, which comes with a flat fee of $140 per group, and a premium tour that allows visitors to walk through the lemurs’ habitat and costs $95 per person, with a minimum group fee of $350.
One reason the DLC will require visitors to wear masks both indoors and outdoors for the foreseeable future is because of the lemurs’ risk of contracting COVID-19, said Education Programs Manager Megan McGrath. It’s also why the center remained completely closed to tours for so long.
“We’ve been assuming this whole time that they could get it and it could devastate our population of lemurs,” McGrath said. While the center has not heard of any proven COVID-19 cases in lemurs, cases in other primate species have supported this hypothesis.
Many offices at the DLC looked like they’d been hit by a zombie apocalypse for the first few months after the pandemic began, McGrath said. “The calendars just stopped.”
While most of the center’s research and conservation offices managed to get up and running within a few months, the education department has been the last to build back up to a full reopening.
When the DLC initially shut down most of its operations, volunteers weren’t permitted to come in, so the education staff switched to working on animal care teams. However, when volunteers were re-incorporated into the center’s operations, some of the education staff members’ hours had to be cut. The education department is funded entirely by tours, and the DLC as a whole has lost over a million dollars in income since the beginning of the pandemic, McGrath said.
While the pandemic has been financially and logistically stressful for the education department, McGrath said that the hiatus from in-person programming gave staff time to apply for funding to design and implement new, creative forms of outreach.
Before COVID-19 forced the shutdown, “too many people” were interested in on-site tours, McGrath said. Running such a busy tour program left them with very little time to pursue external outreach.
“For the last, basically, five years that I’ve been here, the question has been, ‘How do we get as many people on-site for tours? How do we get rid of our waitlist?’” McGrath said.
Since the pandemic began, McGrath and her colleagues have worked with the conservation department to set up a donation program for students in schools in both Durham and Madagascar to engage with lemurs, set up a partnership with a local middle school and organized a virtual education program that allowed families to learn from the DLC while reconnecting with each other from across the country or world.
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One new initiative involves a collaboration with the Canadian nonprofit Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants, which connects scientists and educators with students in classrooms worldwide., The organization just happened to approach the DLC right before the pandemic began, McGrath said. The DLC has done nearly 100 hours of programming and attracted over 12,000 viewers to the free, one-hour talks hosted on the platform.
“There were these little bright spots, where we found ways to connect with people that we hadn’t been able to connect with before because we were so busy with the on-site tours,” McGrath said.
Now that the DLC has expanded its foundation for virtual, widespread outreach, McGrath hopes to keep up the momentum of these new projects while also managing a smooth transition back to on-site tours.
Despite a more limited tour schedule due to space constraints and the restriction to private groups, many of the upcoming tour dates have already been sold out.
“We’ve gotten quite a lot of interest. We’ve had people tell us they’re really, really excited,” McGrath said.
Since being notified only a month ago that they could prepare to reopen in June, the education department has been scrambling to get everything ready for their reopening. And while they’re optimistic that the center’s “new normal” will still be exciting and accessible for visitors, McGrath said that it’s been hard for staff to actually visualize the reopening.
“It’s kind of a pinch me moment. We’re going to believe it’s real when people arrive on Sunday, and we have the first tour going out,” McGrath said.