UNT students work with tiny primates

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Rose Baca/For the DRC
University of North Texas graduate student Emily Rulla trains Uno, a ring-tailed lemur, at the Heard Natural Science Museum & Wildlife Sanctuary recently in McKinney.
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Uno grabbed a plastic ring with his dainty black fingers, staring at it with his bright, golden eyes. He did well with the challenging task and was rewarded for his efforts with a Craisin.

The 4-year-old ring-tailed lemur is one of two at McKinney’s Heard Natural Science Museum & Wildlife Sanctuary, whose mission includes teaching people to protect natural resources. Since 2008, students from the University of North Texas’ Department of Behavior Analysis have been working with animals at the Heard.

Their current project is crate-training Uno and his lemur buddy, Pops, to decrease stress on the exotic animals during transport and to make husbandry tasks easier for museum staff.

The volunteer initiative, through the nonprofit student Organization for Reinforcement Contingencies with Animals, provides students with valuable field experience.

The Heard got its first two lemurs on loan from an East Texas veterinarian for an exhibit on Madagascar, one of the most threatened and endangered habitats on the planet, as part of its “Animals of the World” exhibit.

The ring-tailed lemur is listed as “near threatened” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. Over the last several decades, its numbers have declined by as much as 25 percent because of habitat loss.

Lemurs were not intended to be a permanent fixture at the Heard. But when Uno was born, the museum held a fundraiser to keep him.

On a recent Wednesday, three behavior analysis graduate students went to the Heard for their twice-weekly training session.

“Training super-excitable lemurs is not easy,” said Regan Garden, a first-year student.

Students in the program also study behavior analysis of humans. They say that while many think research starts with animals and then is applied to humans, some human behavior techniques can be applied to animals.

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