June 1, 2020

Chasing lemurs – a passport to another place

Faced with no immediate international travel, alumna Keriann McGoogan’s new memoir may be the next best thing as it will whisk you to Madagascar where she spent 19 months researching lemurs

In 2006, with one year of her PhD program complete, Dr. Keriann McGoogan embarked on what was to be a three-month field research project that would deposit her in Kasijy, a remote pinprick on the island of Madagascar.

With dreams of studying the behaviours of crowned sifakas — an endangered snowy-white lemur — McGoogan, BSc’01, MA’03, left her home in Toronto, packed up her Hubba Hubba tent and flew 14,000 kilometres into the African wilds. Little did the then-25-year-old suspect she would return one month early, labelling the trip a horrible bust: impassable roads, hostile locals, cattle thieves, food poisoning, even malaria. The epic had been so grim, McGoogan refused to talk about it for months.

In fact, despite enjoying a far more successful followup trip in the interim, it would be years before she decided she’d parse together her journal entries with emails she had sent at the time and write a book about the trip that went sideways, again and again. As every seasoned traveller knows, the most meaningful trips are often the ones where everything goes wrong. This is that book.

Dr. Keriann McGoogan

Keriann McGoogan spent 19 months researching lemurs in Madagascar.

T. Steffens

With so many people journalling these days, McGoogan is grateful for the superb note-taking skills she learned from UCalgary anthropology professor, Dr. Mary Pavelka, PhD. Truth is, you never know what wonders lie between the covers of a journal until you read it (in McGoogan’s case) years later. Without her keen recorded details, this memoir would not exist.

Literary influences at school and at home

“Mary taught us how important it is to record everything that happens in your field log,” explains McGoogan, who began her studies at UCalgary as an English major before transferring to anthropology. “That could be the temperature, the weather, how much rain had fallen, as well as your thoughts and reflections on the day. The thinking is that, if you ever have to analyze the data for, say, context, and if you don’t have that on your data sheet, you can refer to your field log where you may have captured it there.”

McGoogan’s other literary influence is her father, Ken McGoogan, author and former books editor at the Calgary Herald. “I can’t even remember how young I was when he gave me my first journal . . . I’ve always journalled,” she says. “In fact, I still get up early every morning and spend an hour writing and reflecting before my work day begins.”

It was while taking a first-year anthropology course from adjunct assistant professor Brian Keating that McGoogan met her future husband, Travis Steffens. The two of them went on to a different part of Madagascar, Ankarafantsika Park, in 2007 where they researched lemurs for 14 months. This later led to Steffens forming the non-profit, Planet Madagascar, where McGoogan volunteers when she’s not working at the University of Guelph.

Why lemurs?

Of all the planet’s primates to study — why lemurs?

“It all began at the U of C,” explains McGoogan. “I was in Brian Keating’s class, the last class of the year, when he projected an image of an indri lemur and said, ‘It would be a sad world without these amazing creatures. You are the next generation. It’s in your hands to make a difference.’”

That precise moment snapped her life in a different direction. McGoogan switched her major to anthropology, which ultimately led her to Madagascar.

Although McGoogan completed her PhD at the University of Toronto, where she researched the behaviour and ecology of Coquerel’s sifaka lemurs, she attributes learning how to be a field researcher to her years at UCalgary including a field school in Belize where she studied howler monkeys.

After spending so much of the past 14 years studying lemurs, McGoogan remains smitten, adding, “It would be a very sad world if kids didn't know about lemurs and didn't have the opportunity to see them in the wild. And Madagascar is such an amazing, unique place full of the kindest, funniest, most incredible people.

Sifaka lemur

Lemurs are the most endangered group of primates in the world

T. Steffens

Besides recalling her initial trip’s misadventures, the book is loaded with arcane facts about lemurs and the east African island — there are 111 living species of lemurs; all species are endemic to Madagascar; 17 species of giant lemurs are now extinct; of its population of 25 million, 16 million Malagasy people live in rural areas where some 85 per cent live below the poverty line; between 1953 and 2014, the island lost 44 per cent of its natural forest cover due to farming, mining and logging; it is home to 11,000 species of birds and 457 species of reptiles.

One of McGoogan’s many highlights from her second trip occurred while watching a group of lemurs tumble around in the leafy canopy of a tree.

“All of a sudden, an infant lemur fell out of the tree from a height of about eight metres,” she recalls. “It hit the ground with a thunk and then, immediately, all the adults in the group shot down to the ground, formed a circle around the infant, picked it up and carried it back up the tree. Minutes later, the infant was jumping around again, but watching this interesting collective protective behaviour happen . . . was very, very interesting.”

Sifaka lemur

Sifaka lemurs can leap quickly from tree to tree by jumping with their powerful hind legs. In this way, they clear distances of over 10 metres.

T. Steffens

As for surviving in an extremely isolated pocket in the northwest corner of Madagascar, McGoogan relates some of those lessons to what we can practise these days as many of us shelter at home.

Clear your head in nature; have a contingency plan; be flexible; be prepared to change plans.

“On a personal level, I learned I am capable of more than I ever knew,” she adds, recalling an incident from her first trip. “Getting out of Kasijy when Andry [her field assistant] was sick with malaria was incredibly difficult and making the decision to do that, which meant folding up our research project and leaving Madagascar early. It tested me on so many levels.”

Although nobody is jetting off to Madagascar anytime soon, McGoogan shares a few of her favourite things, including the things we are all longing for — endless fresh air, a night under the stars, s’mores around a campfire:

Any camping tips? If you’re in the backcountry, go light. “I love my Hubba Hubba tent and Jetboil stove. In the front country, having a tent you can stand up in is great, as well as an inflatable mattress.”

Favourite hike, near Calgary? The Ice Line in Yoho National Park.

Where do you now camp in Ontario? “We like the Killarney area [near Sudbury] for day trips and front-country camping. We often take our mountain bikes, as well.”

Heroes? Alison Jolly, female primatologist and lemur researcher.

Favourite books? Jane Eyre and Anne of Green Gables.  “I love strong females who overcome adversity.”

A guilty pleasure? Watching Survivor. “I’ve been watching it since the day it began and I still love it.”