Patricia Wright's interest in owl monkeys was the launchpad for her renowned career in primatology.

Patricia Wright’s interest in owl monkeys was the launchpad for her renowned career in primatology (Photo: Steven Walling)

By Erin Weeks

One night, during her routine survey of nocturnal monkeys in the Peruvian rainforest, Patricia Wright came nose to nose with a large, male jaguar. She edged slowly off the trail, but she knew the big cat was the one who would decide if she would live to see daylight. He could either jump toward or away from her, Wright says. This time, he jumped away.

Wright’s encounter with the elusive jaguar is just one of many adventures recounted in High Moon Over the Amazon, a memoir covering her early life and research on South American monkeys.

Though best known these days for her pioneering work on Madagascar’s lemurs, Wright’s path to science wasn’t always so clear. In the late 1960s, when her contemporaries were getting PhDs, Wright worked in social services before quitting to raise her daughter. The chance purchase of an owl monkey–and Wright’s insatiable curiosity about the mysterious species’ habits–set her off on a remarkable journey from hippie housewife to groundbreaking researcher.

Wright told that story last night at an event sponsored by the Duke Lemur Center, which was the first place she worked after eventually obtaining her own PhD in her 40s. She read passages about the time army ants ate through her camp’s storehouse and about the difficulties of balancing single motherhood and doctoral work. Wright’s tenacity in the face of doubt and danger kept surfacing in her talk and is something she’s said she hopes to inspire in young women interested in scientific careers.

“Not giving up is the key, and I think young women of today should know that it might not be easy, but they should not get discouraged, because in the long run the struggle is worth it,” she said in an interview with NPR.

Patricia Wright

Dr. Patricia Wright (Photo: Noel Rowe)