November 30, 2023
Florida Icon: Penelope Bodry-Sanders

Photo: Chris Lake

"I work for lemurs every day of my life," says Penelope Bodry-Sanders, 78, the founder, and former executive director of the Lemur Conservation Foundation/Reserve.


Florida Icon: Penelope Bodry-Sanders

Art Levy | 10/7/2022

My mom and dad were living in Chicago when my mom saw an ad that included someone wearing a polka dot bathing suit, and she decided that she needed to move to Florida. They got here in their old, ridiculous car, and it broke down at a traffic light in Miami. There was a little coffee shop there that had a sign in the window: Waitress needed. My mom went in and got the job on the spot. That’s my origin story. She found out she was pregnant about the same time — and that was moi.

I was the education coordinator for the American Museum of Natural History’s international travel program, and so the museum would send me all over the world. One of the places was Madagascar. On the flight there, I looked out the window and saw gouges in the earth. The soil is red in Madagascar, and you’d see these red rivulets running into the sea, and from above it looked like the island was bleeding. I thought to myself that this was going to be the worst trip ever — until I saw my first lemur.

After school, I went right into a convent, and I stayed there for three years. Being a missionary in Africa was always the pull. I went through my postulancy, and I was a teacher — and I loved teaching — but then I had a nervous breakdown, so it was clear I didn’t belong there. I had to go back to my mother superior, who I adored, and I had to tell her that I had to leave.

One of my good friends is Ian Tattersall. He’s a super famous paleoanthropologist, and he’s a lemur expert. He and I were having lunch, and I had just inherited from two friends, who had died from AIDS, money and a spectacular house. So, I had this inheritance, and I said, ‘Look, let’s see what we can do.’ The Lemur Conservation Foundation would not have happened if Ian wasn’t a driving force. We started with $35,000 — and here we are more than 20 years later. The preserve has grown to more than 50 lemurs on 130 acres in Myakka City.

I used to be in a rock band called Tamalpais Exchange, named after the mountain in San Francisco. It was an anti-Vietnam War satire rock group. We sang and did skits. Eventually, I wanted to leave and become an actress, and I got an audition to go for a role in Iphigenia at the Public Theater in New York. Iphigenia was a classic Greek play, but this was a musical, and there were like five women who played Iphigenia. We all had different lines. Anyway, for some unbelievable reason, the final night of the show, there were people there from Jesus Christ Superstar looking for talent. They needed to puff up the cast because the cast was always changing, and they asked me if I would join them. I did Superstar for the better part of three years. I was in the chorus on Broadway, but when I joined the national company, I played Mary Magdalene. We traveled around the country, and when we closed in Los Angeles, that was it. I ran off and got married.

The state of lemurs right now is terrible. They are the world’s most critically endangered primate — not just primate, vertebrate — on the planet. Ninety percent of the forests in Madagascar, where they live, are gone. They are our oldest cousins, our oldest relatives on the planet. They go back 45 to 50 million years. These little primates are critical to our understanding of who we are and where we came from. They still have so much to teach us.

My first morning in Madagascar, I woke up, and there was a lemur staring at me through the window. And then I went outside and there was a whole family of them — ringtail lemurs — and they all had their tails up in the air, and they’re all just sort of in a group marching down the path and looking at me, and I’m looking at them. I was charmed.

I believe that God gives you gifts, and it’s your responsibility to use them. You don’t exploit them, and you don’t throw them away. You don’t ignore them.

Our lemurs live behind a very high fence, 17-feet high. The original plan was scientific research, captive breeding, education and reintroduction into the wild. Well, reintroduction will be impossible until Madagascar can level out, and we don’t know if that’s going to be possible.

Art creates empathy. It makes you feel, so art has been a vital part of the Lemur Conservation Foundation since day one. A lot of the art that I make now is lemur art, but I also paint other underloved, underappreciated animals.

I want to mentor. I want to influence young women, who I think will be the saviors of this Earth.

We’ve lost so many trees in Sarasota to development. It almost makes me cry just thinking about it. We had two spectacular banyans two minutes from my house, and they just took them down. I see the trees come down, and I weep.

I’m a Tidewell Hospice end-of life doula, which I find extremely fulfilling. A doula is a person who is brought in at the end. You work with the patient to determine what their good death is — and you work to make sure that they get it. Who do you want in the room? How do you want people to behave? Do you want people to touch you? You negotiate with the family because sometimes the kids don’t like what their parents want. For example, one of my patients wanted to die alone, and there was a hue and cry from the family, but that’s what she wanted, and that’s what she got.

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