JOHN CLEESE VISITS LEMURS AT SAN FRANCISCO ZOO
by Hans ten Cate
Draft Thursday, 6 June 2002
Final Thursday, 13 June 2002

"I adore lemurs," Cleese once said, "they're extremely gentle, well-mannered, pretty and yet great fun… should have married one."

Source: AP Photo/San Francisco Zoo, Justin Sullivan, Ho

John Cleese was in San Francisco this past Sunday for a special visit to the San Francisco Zoo. The Daily Llama was there for the exclusive event!

Thanks to the generosity of Mr. Cleese and Kim Howard Johnson, my wife and I received a special invitation to tag along and see Cleesey take the first official tour of the Lipman Family Lemur Forest - a new enclosure that will be the world's largest outdoor exhibit for this endangered species.

Local and national press were on hand to interview Cleese about his love for the lemur, which was also heavily featured in Cleese's 1996 film Fierce Creatures and was the subject of a documentary with Cleese in 1998. The June 2nd event made the evening's television news and appeared the next day in the national press wires as well as CNN.com.

"Why Lemurs, John?"

Cleese's 1996 Fierce Creatures featured the original cast from A Fish Called Wanda, including fellow Python castmate Michael Palin, and this very "aggressive" ring-tail lemur

Cleese's affection for lemurs goes back to 1954 when John was a day student at Clifton College. Cleese would reportedly sneak away from school to have a look at the lemurs at the Bristol Zoo, which was situated quite literally across the street. There he fell in love with the ring-tail lemur, a species now well-known to Cleese fans thanks to his film Fierce Creatures.

"What I like about [ring tail lemurs]," Cleese has said, "is that they've got bags of attitude. They remind me of football fans on their way to a match all waving their scarves at one another."

At the recent zoo event, Alyce Faye Cleese explained that John had in the past lent his celebrity status to various charities, including the protection of various species of parrots (the obvious connection being a certain infamous Dead Parrot sketch). John was all too happy to oblige but had remarked that, while parrots are fine, he really liked lemurs and besides, "parrots tend to bite a lot."

John Cleese has been a supporter of the MFG which has its HQ at the San Francisco Zoo

In 1997, Cleese helped raise money to support the work of the Madagascar Fauna Group, an international consortium of zoos founded in 1988 to conserve Madagascar's wildlife. Lemurs can be found only on the African island of Madagascar and the smaller Comoros islands to the Northeast. They are forest dwellers but Madagascar has lost about 90 percent of its forest due to human development. "Because of the policy of clearing the forests," said Cleese, "the natural habitat, the rainforests that these lemurs normally live in, is just getting wiped out."

John Cleese donated about £50,000 in proceeds from the London premiere of Fierce Creatures to kickstart MFG's new Project Betampona. The project intends to systematically repatriate as many as 20 of the adaptable lemurs to their ancestral island nation over the course of several years.

The first U.S.-bred lemurs to "volunteer" for the project came from Duke University and were dubbed the "Carolina Five," although their individual names were much cuter: Janus, Letitia, Praesepe, Sarph and Zuben'ubi. MFG released the five black-and-white ruffed lemurs into the rainforests of Madagascar's Betampona Reserve on 10 November 1997. The hope was that they would survive and eventually mate with the existing population of lemurs to introduce new genes into the dwindling population. "So they don't really become too inbred," explained Cleese, "otherwise they would get like the British Upper Class. And I wouldn't want that to happen to these creatures!"

John Cleese's lemur documentary aired August 1998 on BBC 1 (UK) and October 1999 on PBS (US)

Five months later, in April 1998, John Cleese himself traveled to Madagascar to check on the status of the Carolina Five. The expedition was the subject of a BBC documentary, Born to be Wild: Operation Lemur with John Cleese.

"Madagascar," explained Cleese in the documentary, "is one of the few places on earth that Michael Palin hasn't visited, which gives it a certain caché among truly intrepid explorers."

The surprisingly heartfelt and very funny documentary showed Cleese interacting with a dozen or so lemur species (a total of 33 different varieties live on the island), watching their deliciously comical and human-like behaviors, and hearing of the death of Letitia, killed off by the lemur's natural predator, 'fossa' (pronounced "foos").

 


Was it worth it? Was it worth flying eleven hours to the southern tip of Africa, and then another flight and then three or four hours on the worst roads I've ever seen and then four and half hours hike to get here just to get a glimpse of one of the lemurs for maybe a second and half at 150 yards?

Well of course it WASN'T worth it. I mean, are you mad?! Would you do it?!! The whole thing's a total wash out!!

YOU LITTLE BASTARDS!!

 

John Cleese, on location in Madagascar, after having barely spotted the Carolina Five lemurs

For several days, Cleese traveled the dense rainforests, completing much of it on foot (despite a "dodgy knee") to catch a glimpse of the remaining Carolina Five. The discomfort Cleese clearly felt in the sweltering humidity of Madagascar's forests is nevertheless met with loads of humor and good fun. He threatens to steal documentary footage from David Attenborough and, during a particularly difficult trek tells the audience "You just stay there on your sofas and your arm chairs, make yourself another nice cup of tea... I'll go into the deathtrap! I'll be alright... or if I'm not you'll read about it in the papers. So don't worry!"

Born to be Wild: Operation Lemur with John Cleese aired on BBC1 on 23 August 1998 and was subsequently nominated for a BAFTA that year. The U.S. version, In the Wild: Lemurs with John Cleese aired 10 October 1999 on PBS.

The lemur release project itself has won several awards and has led John Cleese on to other conservation gigs. On 18 October 1999, John Cleese returned to the Bristol Zoo Gardens (the home of his favorite ring-tail lemur) for An Evening with John Cleese to help launch the zoo's conservation effort called the "Save it Programme." Similar to the MFG, the Bristol Zoo program supports major conservation programs in far-flung places (apes in Cameroon, birds in the Philippines).

Today, John's love for animals is clearly evidenced by the company he keeps at his ranch in Santa Barbara. He told us this weekend that he keeps "... eight horses, two alpacas, three dogs, umpteen cats, as well as a few chinchillas, and several rats." John doesn't keep any lemurs himself however. "I don't know if anyone has ever tried to raise one as a pet," said Cleese, "because quite literally, they have no control over their bowels." Cleese said that he would love to expand his menagerie but would have to have some enclosures built at his ranch as well as have a veterinarian nearby.

Random Bit of Trivia #1: John's rats were recently the star of their own hidden camera feature called "The Cleese Cam" on the Rat Race movie website. Visitors could tune into nearly-live images of Cleese's home in Santa Barbara, usually getting shots of his rats running up and down the ramps of their cage.

Random Bit of Trivia #2: Of the five lemurs Cleese set out to find in Madagascar, Sarph is the only remaining living member. The others were killed by fossa or died prematurely. Sarph is doing well and has a "wild" girlfriend. Read more on the Project Betampona website.

A Lemur Called Robo

Meanwhile, back at the zoo...

The reporters stood at the edge of the "old" lemur enclosure, waiting for the zoo's visiting celebrity to generate some news. John Cleese had flown on his own dime to speak of the plight of this endangered species, so this lemur thing must be something important!

John Cleese, with zoo curator Eve Lyon and keeper Dave Bocian

Source: DailyLlama.com

A few reporters quietly consulted with the zoo staff on what a "lemur" was, while the rest stared intently at the enclosure. The plan was for Cleese to visit the old enclosure and then take us to the new "lemur forest" which would be open to the public in four weeks.

Suddenly there were human voices and rustling from the trees down below, sending lemurs scampering up the hill to a clearing where they stared anxiously at the approaching strangers... they knew that with humans in the enclosure, food must certainly be imminent.

Lemurs appeared as if from nowhere once feeding started

Source: DailyLlama.com

First Alyce Faye emerged, very attractive with short blonde hair and summer dress. "Who is that?" asked a photographer. "Alyce Faye Cleese, John's wife," said another. The cool San Francisco air and nearby ocean breeze forced Alyce Faye to don a fleece jacket, appropriately with lemur logos on it.

A ring-tail lemur demonstrates some tree acrobatics... John gave it an 8.3

Source: DailyLlama.com

Then, elder Python John Cleese emerged from the trees, along with several zoo keepers. John was smartly dressed in a navy blazer and tie -- not at all what you would call jungle gear, but ever the perfect example of English style and grace. He waved to the photographers and proceeded to situate himself as the zoo keeper instructed: seated on a rock with a tray of food in his lap. Several lemurs sidled up to Cleese immediately, hoping for treats. Cleese was in his element, smiling ear to ear. John Aiken, curator at the zoo, later explained that John Cleese's only condition for coming to the San Francisco Zoo that day was "quality time with the lemurs."

"Oh you little sweetie!"

Source: DailyLlama.com

Cameras and video cameras clicked and whirred as Cleese moved around the enclosure, feeding and talking to the three species of lemur. "Oh you little sweetie," he said to a ring-tail in a tree, followed by kissing sounds. "Are you getting anything," shouted Cleese at us, "or do you want a different angle?" "Thank you, Mr. Cleese, you've been very gracious!" yelled someone with a huge Nikon while I sheepishly clicked away on my digital camera. "They're such wonderful little creatures" smiled Cleese, returning to feed the last few remaining pieces of fruit to the lemurs in the tree.

Then it was time to visit the new lemur enclosure. But first, one quick stop to visit the red ruffed lemurs, which were housed inside an outdoor cage that was too small for all of the paparazzi, stalkers, and reporters. "Two at a time, please," said the PR coordinator.

John Cleese tests the perseverance of a red ruffed lemur

Source: AP Photo/San Francisco Zoo, Justin Sullivan

As Cleese disappeared into the cages housing the ruffed lemurs there erupted a sudden cacophony of yelps and howls from the cage… it was deafening. "He was torn to bits!" exclaimed one of the zoo staff suddenly, smiling. This evoked nervous laughter from the rest of us who had never heard lemur chatter before.

After the cages, we moved onto the newly built boardwalk, part of the $2.9 million exhibit which would open to the public June 29. It overlooked a marvelous one-acre jungle that would serve as the habitat for all five species of lemurs housed at the zoo. There were plenty of trees and structures to climb and a large moat surrounded the enclosure to prevent the primates from running off to the restaurants and giftshops beyond.

Dr. Eva Sargent, Director of Conservation and Science, talked to me about the new project. The New Zoo will feature "activity towers" that will allow visitors to interact more with the animals than just passively walking by the enclosures (as with typical zoos). Visitors can release treats and even help the keepers interact with the animals, which provides an emotional connection with the animals and not just displays and signs to read. The Lemur Forest is part of a "New Zoo" renovation effort that includes new facilities and attractions, all opening to the public June 29.

John Cleese releases Robo the black-and-white ruffed lemur into the Lipman Family Lemur Forest

Source: DailyLlama.com

Suddenly, Cleese and co. appeared below with Cleese bearing a lemur carrying case. The party walked out into the middle of the enclosure where Robo, the lemur, would become the first lemur to sample the new habitat. "This is the first time he's ever been in here," said Cleese, opening the latch. Robo crawled out and immediately began exploring to enthusiastic applause from all of us above. It was captivating to watch Robo explore the surroundings. He drank from a stream, rubbed up against a post, and climbed up one of the activity towers.

John and Alyce returned to the elevated boardwalk to talk to the reporters and pose for more photos. John gave several interviews and while it was certainly fulfilling my fantasy to hang out with Cleese and listen to his every word, I couldn't keep my eyes off Robo. So captivated was I by these remarkable creatures that I nearly forgot why I was even there.


John Cleese delivers sound-bites for the evening news programs

Source: DailyLlama.com; NBC News, KNTV San Francisco

I did learn that Cleese these days enjoys giving management speeches, based on his dabbles in management training and industrial psychology. "It's sort of like performing," he said, "and of course I started out in theatre. But then again theatre has its limitations in that it is the same performance night after night. Here at least I get to customize and write new aspects to the speeches each time."

The lovely Alyce Faye Cleese and the other chap

Source: DailyLlama.com

John and Alyce Faye were wonderful. The more I listened, the more I felt that they had the every-day sensibility we see in our own friends and family. Alyce kept adjusting and brushing John's well-pressed suit... "well, if you're going to be on camera," she said at one point as she flipped and straightened John's coat pocket. The very lemur-like preening gave John and Alyce Faye an affectionate quality that removed any sense of celebrity.

Visit the 20 lemurs of the Lemur Forest starting June 29 at The San Francisco Zoo

During the lunch I got to speak one-on-one with John for a few minutes, which was a real thrill. There is a calmness and ease about him that makes him exceptionally easy to talk to. This despite the fact that Cleese towered over even my 6'1" frame.

While Cleese and I hunted for some dairy-free sweets from the dessert table, we talked about his busy schedule (Banff, Washington DC, New York, an Atlantic cruise... all in June). I asked him about the Internet and it turns out that Cleese prefers not to dabble too much in e-mail as it provides yet another unrestricted channel for unsolicited offers. No doubt, Cleese has gotten his fair share of "spam."

Cleese apologized for having to leave early as England was playing Sweden that afternoon in the World Cup. Should I have told them that the match ended in a deadlock? On my way out, Alyce Faye stopped me to say hello, having just seen my little confab with her husband. "Alyce," as John calls her, has a marvelous southern accent, hailing as she does from Waco, Texas. She was gracious and lively, even taking the time to introduce herself to my wife. As we left, I'm embarrassed to say I may have uttered something about never washing this hand again...

A special thanks to curator John Aikin, PR director Nancy Chan, and Dr. Eva Sargent, Director of Conservation and Science, for making us feel welcome at the San Francisco Zoo and for sharing their stories and cause with us. They are truly remarkable people.


Additional Sources: