Dr. Patricia C. Wright, the famed primatologist at Stony Brook University, found herself far removed from her native habitat yesterday morning, in a bustling Los Angeles hotel scrambling to get ready for a screening of Island of Lemurs: Madagascar, an IMAX documentary featuring her work.
“I never thought I was going to be on a Hollywood red carpet,” Dr. Wright said. “This day means so much, not just to me but to all of Madagascar and all of those beautiful lemurs.”
Chances are, those lemurs wouldn’t still be around if not for Dr. Wright’s efforts. In the process of rediscovering the Greater Bamboo Lemur, which was thought to be extinct, the famed primatologist also discovered an entirely new species, the Golden Bamboo Lemur. Her findings and subsequent animal conservation efforts helped establish a massive wildlife preserve, Ranomafana National Park.
Outside the screening, the press area was lightly packed with a range of reporters from freelancing kids to The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. Inside, nearly all of the California Science Center’s 477 IMAX seats were full, some taken by celebrities and their kids including UFC fighter Chuck Liddell, Rob McElhenney and Kaitlin Olson from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and actor Boris Kodjoe.
Writer and producer Drew Fellman and director David Douglas courted Wright for the film because of her ability to bring attention to the plight of Madagascar’s lemurs, they said. Dr. Wright has actively fought slash-and-burn agriculture since her discoveries in the late 1980s.
“I met her at a dinner here in L.A. and I immediately thought she was a person worthy of an IMAX,” Fellman said. “So I went after her until she brought us to Madagascar.”
Dr. Wright spends almost six months out of the year in Madagascar, she said. She founded Centre ValBio, a research station partially funded by Stony Brook University that sits just outside Ranomafana.
“[Stony Brook] is very supportive,” Dr. Wright said, a few moments after posing for pictures with a lemur on her shoulder at the screening. “I really appreciate how they’ve allowed me to do this. I also appreciate that they’ve let me develop a study abroad program.”
Dr. Wright said that she teaches about 50 undergraduate students a year at Centre ValBio in the spring and fall semesters, as well as the summer intersession. Graduate students conduct research there as well.
Centre ValBio also has a mission to work with local villagers to improve their quality of life in an effort to garner support for a conservationist movement that had been directly at odds with their former slash-and-burn agriculture.
“In addition to working with the animals, I’m also working with the local people,” said Dr. Wright, who worked as a social worker in New York City before getting her Ph.D. in primatology.
“Stony Brook University is doing exactly what a university should be doing in terms of science support, and in terms of facing up to the challenges that scientists have to take the lead in the world that we live in now,” Douglas said on the red carpet. “Scientists are the only ones that can speak with any credibility about the depletion of resources and the depletion of our habitat and the destruction of our environment.”
To augment Dr. Wright’s voice, Fellman and Douglas brought in actor Morgan Freeman to narrate the film.
“I think that it is, with capital letters, wonderful” that Stony Brook backs Dr. Wright’s research and conservationism, Freeman said. “People like Patricia need all the help that they can get. They need to shine lights on people like her. We’re not aware of the damage that we’re doing to the planet and the biodiversity of the place. It’s like, ‘It’s only us,’ and that ain’t so, you know.”
The light is certainly on Dr. Wright. She will be an honoree at the 2014 “Stars of Stony Brook” Gala on April 16. She is a finalist for the 2014 Indianapolis Conservation Prize. And she has been cited as the inspiration for conservationist television figures like Martin Kratt, a former student of Dr. Wright’s and his brother Chris, who produce the PBS Kids “Wild Kratts” series, and Dr. Mireya Mayor, a former NFL cheerleader turned primatologist and host of “Nat Geo Wild” who studied under Dr. Wright and got her Ph.D. at Stony Brook. She was also a scientific consultant for the film.
“I chose Stony Brook above any other school because it has the best anthropology program in the country,” Dr. Mayor said. “And more than that, it has Dr. Wright. I could not have asked for a better advisor or mentor… and I don’t think that I would have had half the success that I’ve had in my career had it not been for Stony Brook and Dr. Wright.”
Island of Lemurs opens Friday, April 4.
— By Michael Ruiz