Over the past three weeks, the City of Sanibel has received three reports of a pair of animals matching the description of ring-tailed lemurs. Unfortunately, none of the sources was able to photograph the animals. One of the sources was a city employee, whose sighting occurred near City Hall.
If confirmed, these sightings would be highly unusual as lemurs are critically endangered and found naturally only on the island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa.
Lemurs, especially ring-tailed lemurs, are found in zoos worldwide (including locally at the Shell Factory in Fort Myers and the Naples Zoo) and may be kept legally as pets in Florida with a FWC Class III wildlife permit.
As a sanctuary island, the city's policy is to verify the accuracy of wildlife and exotic animal reports on the island. If it is determined that one or more ring-tailed lemurs is roaming freely, the city will work with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to determine the most appropriate plan of action. At this time, the most likely explanation is that the lemurs are escaped pets or were intentionally released on Sanibel.
Ring-tailed lemurs generally are unmistakable because of their long, vividly striped, black-and-white tail. Lemurs use their hands and feet to move nimbly through the trees, but cannot grip with their tails as some of their primate cousins do.
Ring-tailed lemurs also spend a lot of time on the ground, which is unusual among lemur species. Ring-tailed lemurs are omnivores, eating a variety of fruits, flowers and leaves (and sometimes nectar) as well as insects, spiders, and small vertebrates.
As with all primates, hungry lemurs might eat anything that is edible, whether or not the item is one of its preferred foods. They are diurnal (active during the day) and, in their native habitat, live in large groups with a matriarchal society (i.e. females dominant over males).
In wild populations, aggressive behavior is extremely rare outside of the breeding season and territorial displays. It is unlikely a lemur on Sanibel would pose a threat to humans or pets. However, as with all wild animals, residents should exercise caution upon encountering a lemur as aggression can be hard to predict and control.
Ring-tailed lemurs are one of the most vocal primates and have several different alarm calls with distinct meanings to alert members of their group to potential danger. They do not have claws, but rather fingernails and toenails similar to humans.
Anyone spotting a lemur or having information about the reported sightings is asked to contact the Sanibel Police non-emergency line at (239) 472-3111.