The N.C. Zoo's newest animals are a link to the most ancient primates.
Lemur Island, featuring eight of the playful prosimians, opens to the public today. Six ring-tailed and two red-ruffed lemurs occupy a space that last housed Patas monkeys and, before that, baboons.
At a time when legislators are struggling to come up with a budget and the zoo itself has had to return funds because of the financial crisis, finding the $100,000 needed to renovate the space and bring in new animals required some outside help.
"We try to do a little something new each year," said David Jones, director of the park, in part because so many of the 750,000 people who come to the zoo each year are repeat visitors.
Some of the money for Lemur Island came from zoo revenues, the rest from the N.C. Zoo Society and private donors.
Major efforts at the zoo, such as a planned renovation of the polar bear exhibit, can take years and millions of dollars.
But by using its seasoned and resourceful design staff, rather than hiring out work such as the construction of concrete trees, "We can do a lot with relatively little," Jones said.
The animals appear to have adapted well to their new home.
"King Julian!" children shouted when one of the gray ring-tails bounced across a rock formation and climbed a tree. King Julian is a cartoon lemur from the popular movie "Madagascar" and the only lemur some people have ever seen.
All lemurs originate from the island nation of Madagascar, where deforestation is rapidly destroying their natural habitat. The animals are considered critically endangered.
North Carolina already has a lemur connection, thanks to the Duke Lemur Center in Durham. Two of the zoo's lemurs came from the Lemur Center, which does research, conservation and education work with the animals. The center has a breeding program, which it has used to return some animals to the wild.
"They're miraculous creatures," Dr. Anne Yoder, director of the center, told those gathered for the dedication Friday. As she spoke, lemurs cavorted behind her, swinging delicately between branches. Yoder said lemurs are thought to have lived on Madagascar for 60 million years.
The exhibit, which includes plantings designed to make it look less like Piedmont North Carolina and more like the lemurs' home off the coast of Africa, is expected to be popular among summer visitors.
Though smaller than other "charismatic" zoo animals such as elephants and lions, lemurs draw crowds. Their bright eyes make them look knowing and alert. They're investigative, so they move about like busy children.
They're female-dominant, they're social, they're acrobatic.
"And they're so cute," said Sonji Gardner, who played a bead-wrapped gourd in her family's African musical ensemble, which performed at Friday's event.