What We Learned in a Year Without Visitors
In March of 2020, the Duke Lemur Center’s education team were easing into our busy season; phones were ringing, emails were pouring in, and we were looking forward to a hot summer full of visitors. Each year, we welcome over 35,000 guests for onsite tours, and those tour fees contribute significantly to the DLC’s funding for animal care and conservation work. But in early March 2020, all educational programming and funding came screeching to a halt. On June 4, 2021, we were thrilled to have visitors back on-site after 14 months of closure, but it’s been a long and strange year in the meantime.
When it first became clear that we would need to stay closed to tours and volunteers for more than just a few weeks, the education team jumped right in to help care for the lemurs, trading in their tour guide uniforms for cleaning scrubs. Working in team shifts to lessen staff contact, the education staff spent the summer hosing out enclosures, preparing diets, and creating enrichment for the lemurs alongside animal care staff. It is an educator’s job to know a bit about everything that goes on at the DLC, but a solid six months of behind-the-scenes experience in animal care was a deeper education than we ever could have fit into our typical routine.
The early mornings and physically demanding work required adjustment, but renewed our appreciation for the hard work that DLC keeper staff and volunteers put in daily. We also got to know the lemurs and our coworkers in animal care much better. All of that up-close-and-personal time with the lemurs allowed us to share more with our community on social media, who were just as eager for updates about the lemurs as we were for public engagement. Educator Anna Lee gradually took on leading DLC social media, and she was able to reach more people than ever with so much new lemur footage—and our followers seemed to really need that extra dose of cute during the pandemic.
As animal care volunteers were gradually able to return, the education staff brainstormed ways that we could continue to reach the public from a distance. Typical onsite visitor numbers kept us too busy to focus on who we weren’t reaching, but this break from the busy tour schedule gave us space to consider reaching new, more diverse audiences. With this in mind, we began to focus on creating virtual programming.
With the help of a donated GoPro camera as well as some trial and error with video editing software, we were soon able to offer a full 75-minute virtual tour of the DLC. On the tail of this new tour came other virtual options like the Painting with Lemurs or Celebration experiences, which combined custom videos with lemur-themed care packages, sent all over the country. Zoom chats with lemur experts, weekly lessons, and this monthly newsletter joined the ranks as ways to engage students from home. We were grateful to find ways to continue to connect with the public, and occasionally make someone’s day with a fun lemur video, but were also able to learn what our community is truly interested in seeing and learning, and how we can really connect with lemur lovers around the globe.
As the increase in vaccinations made reopening a realistic possibility again, our primary concern remained keeping the lemurs and the people of the DLC as safe as possible. After months of evaluating data and considering possible avenues, we finally received approval to start a limited tour schedule—14 months after the first tours had been cancelled. The email from our director happened to come in during an education team meeting. Our Zoom screens showed shock, laughter, tears, and then panic, as we realized how much there was to do before reopening in just one month!
Now, three weeks after the first visitors returned to the DLC, we are back in the swing of things and looking forward to the year ahead. Volunteer tour guides have returned, the tour path is in use again, and the limited tour options are selling out quickly. Overall, the return of visitors to the DLC has been wonderfully successful, though not quite “back to normal.” Guests are excited to be back and have been wonderfully understanding of safety protocols, even as the rest of the world slowly returns to being mask-free. For their part, the lemurs don’t seem to care much whether they have an audience or not—they’re still cute whether or not anyone is looking.
Though a full year of being closed was difficult financially for the DLC and emotionally for the education team, the closure allowed space to learn more about our future goals. While there is no lack of engagement from in-person visitors, the introduction of virtual tours ushered in a new era of engagement with national and global audiences. We have set our sights on a future with more accessible education and outreach, both within the Durham community and on a larger scale. With the support of dedicated lemur-lovers worldwide, we are excited to continue connecting people from all walks of life with wildlife, here at the DLC or maybe on a screen near you…and to continue learning a lot along the way!