Penelope Bodry-Sanders is an Audubon Forever Green Fellow, an Explorer’s Club Fellow and the founder of the Lemur Conservation Foundation, a non-profit forested reserve in Florida that specializes in preserving the primates of Madagascar through managed breeding, scientific research, education, and art. Prior to her work with lemurs, Bodry-Sanders worked for the American Museum of Natural History in New York as the coordinator for the museum’s educational international travel program. She is the author of the seminal African Obsession: The Life and Legacy of Carl Akeley as well as A Conspiracy of Lemurs, published in October 2023, which details the history of The Lemur Conservation Foundation. The book promises to serve as an educational and compelling personal guide for aspiring and established conservationists alike. In this conversation with novelist Allie Rowbottom, Penelope discusses the origins of her conservation work, the intersection between art, empathy and science and her hopes and advice for future conservationists.
Q: First things first: what is a conspiracy of lemurs? What does this title tell us about your forthcoming book? And about what makes lemurs unique among primates?
A: You know those evocative collective nouns for animals? A murder of crows, an exaltation of larks, a smack of jellyfish. Well, a group of lemurs is called a conspiracy. To me, the term seems appropriate. Since my very first encounter with lemurs in Madagascar, 30 years ago, it has felt like they were goading me on, whispering, "Let's get her to do something for us, so we can maybe survive." Their conspiring worked! They made me fall in love with them. As I learned early on, lemurs are captivating creatures: brave, prideful, capable of inspired acts of devotion, and occasionally tempted into retaliation for slights large, small, or imagined. In other words, they are a lot like us. The more I learned about them, and their precarious situation, the more I knew I would devote my energies to them.
Lemurs are our oldest relatives (going back some 60 million years). Most people are familiar with the iconic ring-tailed variety, but there are approximately 115 species of lemurs, and one-third of those are critically endangered. All are native to Madagascar and a few nearby islands. Evolving far from the higher primates (great apes and monkeys) of mainland Africa enabled lemurs to diversify and adapt to all manner of environments, from arid landscapes to frigid mountainous areas, and everything in between.
And they play a vital role within the ecosystems that they inhabit. While every plant and animal has intrinsic worth and a crucial role within the complex web of life, there are those charismatic ambassadors that speak volumes for the less visible or compelling. Lemurs serve as an umbrella species: by protecting them, countless other species within their forested habitats are shielded from devastation.
Q: Over the course of your career in conservation, you've dedicated yourself to many causes. You're the author of African Obsession: The Life and Legacy of Carl Akeley and spent eighteen years working with the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. How and when did you happen upon lemurs as an area of interest? And what led you to build the Lemur Conservation Foundation?
A: In 1993, I was fortunate to travel to Madagascar through my work at the AMNH and could not shake that first interaction with lemurs. One of my astute and charismatic friends at the Museum, paleoanthropologist Doctor Ian Tattersall, is also a lemur expert. In speaking so passionately about lemurs and the very real possibility of their extinction, he inspired my “lightbulb moment.” I’d received a small inheritance of $35,000 and wanted to do something worthwhile. I decided to use the funds to help protect and save lemurs. Naïve though it was, I assembled a team and forged ahead, creating the Lemur Conservation Foundation (LCF).
What began on a shoestring has grown to a 130-acre reserve in southwest Florida. It’s been home to more than 160 free-roaming lemurs and, by our latest count, we’ve welcomed eighty babies. Incredibly, we are now in our 27th year. Working both in the U.S. and Madagascar, we focus on managed breeding, scientific observational research, education, and art. Someday, we hope it will no longer be necessary to serve as a lemur safety net. Until then, we will continue to safeguard their DNA for a brighter future.
Q: What are the most memorable challenges you faced in founding and running the Lemur Conservation Foundation? And the victories?
By far, my fiercest challenge was always a crisis of self-confidence, especially following the initial excitement of getting the reserve started. When the day-to-day realities hit—construction compliances, endless meetings with county administrators, and sorting out the myriad logistics that would allow us to move forward—I questioned my competence to take it all on. I’m not a scientist. Was it arrogant to think I could do this? I battled that maelstrom constantly and had to work hard to calm it, at least temporally.
The three most significant victories that stand out to me are:
- The birth of our first lemur—the critically endangered Eulemur mongoz (mongoose lemur).The joy was enormous. And today, LCF supports the largest number of these primates in any AZA facility.
- When we were officially accepted into the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
- When our work in Madagascar took off under Dr. Erik Patel’s leadership. Besides Erik, LCF has an office and four employees in northeast Madagascar, making a considerable difference in ecological conservation and improving the lives of the local people through education, training, ecotourism, and promoting public health initiatives.
Q: When did you realize you wanted to write about your career in conservation? What was the seed of A Conspiracy of Lemurs and what did the early phases of its writing look like?
A: Many people encouraged me to write the history of the foundation as a sort of “how to” book for others interested in conservation. But there were so many personal tendrils spilling out from the basic conservation story that the book became a hybrid memoir and natural history narrative. I researched and wrote the Carl Akeley biography over seven years, visiting East and Central Africa many times to conduct research. For Lemurs, the writing was easier because I had volumes of material at my fingertips, and the reserve is a living, breathing entity. Initially, the book was a series of vignettes—like quick snippets coming into focus and fading, one into the next. Even given that, it took over three years to write, and I collaborated with an old friend and fellow AMNH employee, Fiona Brady. Together, we worked to meld parallel chronologies—mine and LCF’s—into a narrative.
Q: In addition to writing and your work in conservation, you're also a visual artist. Wildlife always finds its way into your paintings. What is the relationship between your art and your career in conservation? How have the two interests intersected and informed one another?
A: Art can create empathy and connect its audiences to feel more about its content, and that applies to conservation issues. Many artists do this effectively. Alexis Rockman is one whose work never fails to move me; it is beautiful and often wrenching. Most of my own work involves animals and lifeforms often considered ugly, inconsequential, or appalling. I’m an Aristotelian and Thomist, through and through, and believe that a successful piece of art needs integrity, proportion, and clarity (or “splendour of form”). I endeavour always to embody the mantra: "To see, to know, to love, to protect."
Q: I'm curious about your hopes for future generations of conservationists. What are the challenges of contemporary conservation? What are the strengths?
A: I am full of hope. Next year, I'll be 80, so it is definitely up to my successors to carry the torch. All of us begin our work from a point of dubious outcome. The difference lies in how much more humanity now knows about how dire things will become if we do not act. Every generation has faced adversity and kept on.
Last week I was in Washington, DC, at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum. I saw an astonishing film titled "Purple"—which is the colour of mourning—by John Akomfrah, a British filmmaker of Ghanaian descent. Across six screens, he tells the story of the Anthropocene—the present geological age, which has also been dubbed the "Age of Loneliness." His work interlaces scenes of outstanding natural beauty, classical dance, and music with horrific archival footage and images of oil rigs, coal mines, factories, polluted waters, and dead animals—you get the picture. When it ended, I could hardly move. But its power and elegance stirred my soul. And it is the hearts and talents of artists like Akomfrah, and the promise and innovation of the latest generation of scientists, that can wake us from indifference and motivate us to action.
Q: And for lemurs, so close to your heart and your life's work: what are your goals? What do you hope for lemurs in the future?
A: I want them to have a future! And I'll die trying to make that happen.
We all have choices. How do we choose what to save as we fight through the web of indifference and futility? We start by committing to one thing—one animal, one plant, one river, one fish, one forest, one ecosystem. Which one you pick is not the point. What matters is that each of us chooses something that is meaningful for the Earth’s well-being, and then sticks with it. What we choose must be highly personal—we will only save what we love. Most notably, it must be something that would leave a hole in our hearts if it were to disappear.
Q: What you hope the book will accomplish?
A: I hope that our story encourages others to dream big, take risks, acknowledge the pitfalls, and keep going anyway. One needn’t go by the same route, but if enough of us who care passionately about the natural world take action, we may save at least souvenirs of Earth’s unique life-forms until a better future can be realized.