If you want a lemur from Madagascar for a helper monkey, forget it: poachers don’t work for peanuts these days. If you’re a researcher for an institution like the Field Museum, though, and you can convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department that you need specimens of rare creatures, then you’re in like Flynn, says Peter Wood, a research associate from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Well, usually.

When they found out this spring that the museum had applied for a permit to kill mouse lemurs and fat-tailed dwarf lemurs for research–or rather, to have scientists in Madagascar kill the animals, then ship pieces of them to Chicago–Wood and his colleagues at PETA were outraged. The museum claimed the sampling would be used to promote habitat conservation, Wood said. But why can’t they just play with some DNA samples scraped from live animals? Or roadkill? “Obviously, they’re going to die,” Wood snorted. “And there are lemurs in captivity in the U.S.–why can’t they get ahold of some of them without taking these animals from the wild?”

On May 31 PETA fired off a fax to John McCarter, the Field’s CEO, mentioning the shining examples of Jane Goodall and Birute Galdikas, who’ve done so much for primate habitat without resorting “to killing the very animals they are trying to conserve.”

PETA’s “action alert” on the subject, aimed at activists who might enjoy a letter-writing campaign, was less subtle. It quoted Wood making a remark he presumably hoped would reach McCarter’s ear: “If you want samples, have the decency to obtain them from animals who have died of natural causes. You have no right to impose a mass death sentence in the name of curiosity.”

Having gotten no response by June 9, Wood called the CEO at work to ask what was going on, and was patched through instead to the head of security. “Have I reached the U.S. White House by mistake? You’re putting me through to ‘protective services’?!” Wood said the guy demanded his address, which was already on the letter he’d sent to McCarter. “He then read to me my phone number which was on the same letter…in an apparent attempt to intimidate me. Didn’t work. He hung up on me when I wondered–out loudly–why I was talking to a rental cop.”

PETA members geared up for protest, assuming the license to kill was a done deal; Wood says “they rarely say no” to research institutions. But after the press began calling the museum, he says, “They changed their story. Now they’re claiming that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t going to let them have it–not for the lemurs’ sake, but because there’s some kind of civil unrest in Madagascar. What does that have to do with lemurs?” Wood wasn’t buying it. If no slaughter was imminent, why didn’t the museum tell PETA not to worry? “Not a letter, not a callback. If you were denied, why don’t you reply?”

The museum’s permit request was indeed formally turned down on May 30. But while the government and the Field may have spared the little guys for the moment, Wood says, it wasn’t “for the right reasons.” As soon as things stabilize in Madagascar, Wood fears, lemur death will follow. (The latest chapter in its ongoing civil war was an assassination attempt on president-elect Marc Ravalomanana by French mercenaries.) He wants to make sure the museum will hold off on the research even if they do get permission. “We want a written commitment.”

For the past couple of weeks PETA members have been tying up the museum’s phone lines. A research institution boasting about 70 staff PhDs, many of whose life’s work is in fact conservation, the Field doesn’t have much experience with attacks from environmental and animal-rights groups. But PETA’s tendency to get more than verbal in its indignation is common knowledge: most infamous is their paint pitching at fur wearers, but they’ve also been accused of mailing envelopes containing threatening letters and razor blades to primate researchers. Cofounder Ingrid Newkirk was quoted by Reuters saying she “openly” hoped foot-and-mouth disease would come to the U.S. McCarter was concerned enough to draft a memo to the trustees and staff warning them about PETA, and sent it out June 14, the same day he faxed his reply

to Wood. “Whether PETA’s action escalates or dissipates remains to be seen, but it has reached a level sufficiently aggressive to warrant a report informing you of its nature and scope,” he wrote. The letter reassured employees that “appropriate security steps” would be taken to protect them, though it mentioned no specific threats of harm, just scathing press releases. PETA is also allegedly involved in heavy flyering.

So what was the museum trying to discover with all these dead lemurs they weren’t allowed to have? “As far as the ‘research’ is concerned, it is pretty convoluted so I can’t really say,” said Wood.

In his fax to Wood McCarter explained, “During the past several decades Madagascar has experienced extensive loss of forests, driving some species toward extinction….However, mouse and fat-tailed dwarf lemurs are abundant and are the commonest species….One owl in one night can consume more mouse lemurs than scientists would collect at any site.” McCarter’s point seems to be that the lemurs’ population density is fairly high–it’s the habitats themselves that are in danger. Said McCarter: “In order to protect them, scientists must collect and identify voucher specimens…. This research is designed to build on previous work and identify new species. Understanding species diversity is essential for targeted conservation of natural habitats. Without this understanding, deforestation continues unabated and precious habitats are lost.” In other words, it’s hard to convince a government to save a tract of forest if you can’t tell them what’s unique in it to be saved; 150 dead lemurs, the Field reasons, are better than a wiped-out habitat–and no place for lemurs at all.

For these purposes, the Field couldn’t use specimens from captive populations in the U.S., as they already know those species exist. But PETA had one more good question: why not use specimens that died of natural causes? “Mouse and dwarf lemurs are small forest-living primates, and it is inconceivable that suitable dead specimens will ever be found in the wild,” said McCarter (not in his fax to PETA, but in the staff memo). It is a rain forest, after all; dead matter decomposes quickly even if it isn’t wolfed down by bugs or carnivores. And as lemurs are prey animals, they tend to get killed by owls before they can drop dead from old age anyway.

Larry Heaney, a scientist at the Field, also explains that the museum was applying for a license to import, not to kill–and they were applying for it on somebody else’s behalf anyway. “This is not a Field Museum project,” he said. The Field Museum was asked by a Madagascan scientist (whose identity Heaney didn’t want to reveal for fear of violence from animal-rights organizations) to get an import permit on his behalf, as they can only be applied for from inside the U.S. “Madagascar has very limited facilities, and he needs to compare his specimens to the existing collections” to determine whether the animals he’s studying are in fact new species. “Those collections are in the United States. And he was going to use our facilities to clean them for study.” Furthermore, he said, the lemurs in question are in fact quite common in Madagascar and even adapt well to habitats that have been disturbed by human agriculture.

He said Fish and Wildlife gave two reasons for denying the import permit: first, they didn’t know which was the current legitimate government of Madagascar. Second, “they said the information provided was insufficient to issue a permit. If there hadn’t been a civil war, would they have given it to us? I don’t know.”

Wood digested McCarter’s fax over the weekend; that Monday, the 17th, he called Fish and Wildlife to check out McCarter’s story about the permit, then ground out a riposte to McCarter’s fax. “The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) has confirmed to PETA that it denied The Field Museum’s request to import more than 150 endangered Madagascan lemurs for use in research. According to the agency, the denial was based more on the merits (or lack thereof) of the museum’s permit application than Madagascar’s ‘political instability’ as you allege.”

“Actually, they’re both right,” said Tim Van Norman, chief of the permit branch in Fish and Wildlife’s Division of Management Authority. “Whether it’s half full or it’s half empty, they’re both still looking at a glass of water.” He said the Field was welcome to try again if they could make a better case, though the bar is higher than usual due to human affairs. He pointed out that the U.S. has jurisdiction only over the lemurs’ importation, not their murder.

One paragraph of McCarter’s fax to PETA began: “You state that we wanted to import 95 ‘species’ of mouse lemurs. This is not correct. We requested permission to import a maximum of 95 specimens (not species), as well as 57 specimens (not species) of dwarf lemurs.” But in his reply Wood chose to throw McCarter’s next words back at him. “In your June 14, 2002, letter to PETA you state: ‘Our colleagues in Madagascar are collecting only a small number of mouse and dwarf lemurs at each of 19 different locations. Most of the specimens are to be returned to scientists in Madagascar.'” Wood pressed McCarter: “We would like to know if the ‘collecting’ of these animals entails killing them and if so, why the museum would order their slaughter despite its import permit having been denied. We would also like to know how many animals are involved and from where the ‘specimens are to be returned’ if not the United States.”

So far, McCarter’s declined to reply. “I don’t think I’ll be getting a response,” said Wood.

By June 25, the lemurs no longer appeared on the home page of the PETA Web site. And it takes a bit of hunting around to find the updated action alert: “We are confident that the public outcry regarding this issue has forced the museum to reexamine how it conducts its research and that it will think twice before ordering the slaughter of endangered animals again. Thank you to everyone who wrote and called the museum in behalf of the lemurs–your voices were heard.” But PETA never seems to get a breather: one click on the “Elephants Rampage in Wisconsin” headline that replaced the lemur alert warns readers of trouble brewing just across the border. On June 17 elephants bolted from a Shriner circus tent, injuring a child. As part of its “Elephantgate” campaign PETA has ordered the local county board to ban elephant acts. Will the animal-rights group succeed? That may depend on the merits of their case.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J. Kerley, Duke University Primate Center, Durham, NC.