A Death in the Family

by Jon Franklin

© The News & Observer Publishing Co

DURHAM — It was dawn when David Brewer arrived at the Duke Primate Center to find two cars parked outside the loading doors. One belonged to Cathy Williams, the primate center veterinarian, and the other to her assistant. David knew instantly that something was wrong.

David, the senior keeper on weekends, had anticipated that Saturday would be a difficult day. For one thing, this was homecoming weekend, and that guaranteed a lot of visitors. And then, just before Friday’s shift ended, Messalina had become ill.

Messalina was a Propithecus tattersalli, or golden-crowned sifaka – a delicate, long-limbed lemur that had to be one of nature’s most beautiful creatures. Her face and hands were as delicately carved as black onyx, set in a cloud of white and gold fur. Until the biologist’s dart had brought her down, she had floated through the treetops of Madagascar like some wraith derived from the imagination of a Dali or a Picasso.

By tradition the primate center scientists had named her for a Roman head of state, but at the end of the 20th century, Messalina was worth more than any empress, living or dead. For her species was critically endangered, and there were only four in captivity. Of the four, Messalina was the only female.

Her estimated age at capture in 1993 was 14. She was pregnant at the time, but the offspring was stillborn. Despite her age, however, she remained fertile, and in 1996 she became pregnant again. This time the offspring was born live but died two months later of an intestinal problem. Then, last spring, Messalina and her mate, Agrippa, produced another live infant, a male who was duly christened Valens. For a while, the center staff was apprehensive, but Valens not only survived but thrived, clinging to his mother’s back as she moved from limb to limb through her large nursing enclosure. Now, at 6 months, he had reached the second period critical to survival in sifakas: weaning. The process had begun a few weeks earlier, with Valens continuing to nurse but beginning to sample the leaves and other solid foods his mother ate.

Meanwhile, the beauty that was his heritage, coupled with the excruciating cuteness of his babyhood, tested his keepers’ ability to keep an emotional distance.

Then, Friday, Messalina became lethargic and her right eye seemed to be protruding from its socket. The vet had immediately gone into action and had still been working furiously when Brewer left for the day. This morning, he figured he would come in to find a long memo outlining the day’s nursing duties. A sick animal always complicated the day and added pressure. When the animal was as valuable as Messalina, it inevitably upped the ante.

But he hadn’t expected to find the vet still here. When he saw her car, he picked up his pace.

Inside, the vet met him in the doorway of the clinical area. Her drawn face and dejected posture were more eloquent than words.

“Oh, no,” David said. “Oh shit. She died.”

As an anthropology undergraduate, David had been cautioned again and again about the dangers of anthropomorphizing the animals under study. Animals were not people and did not have human values, and their behaviors should not be explained by human analogy. This strict mind-set was an historical reaction to the tendency of Victorian scientists to see animals as imperfect humans, and to explain their behavior against the backdrop of Christian morality. Later generations of anthropologists swore to keep their distance and, along with it, a strict sense of objectivity.

But in recent decades, this objectivism had been confounded by new waves of knowledge about the evolution of brains and, by extension, behavior. Primates in particular shared much neural circuitry with the scientists who kept them, and much of that shared circuitry was emotional. For those like David, who dealt intimately with primates, the barriers became increasingly difficult to maintain. The language bent and wavered. Offspring became “babies,” mothers became “moms,” sires became “dads,” social units became “families.” Ultimately the boundaries of kinship expanded to include the animals outside the cages as well as the ones inside.

Now, this morning, there had been a death in the family.

The vet briefed David with a fatigued efficiency. Messalina’s trouble had begun with an abscessed incisor, and the infection had spread up through the sinus and thence into the brain. The brain had swelled behind the eye and pushed it forward.

The first half of the vet’s night had been spent in a frantic effort to save the animal – getting X-ray, pulling two teeth and cleaning out the sinus. But it was too late. Around midnight, Messalina’s heart stopped. Then came a dismal eight hours conducting a detailed autopsy under the bright lights of the operating room. So little was known about golden-crowned sifakas, no opportunity for gaining knowledge could be passed by.

The concern, now, was for Valens, the fragile young male who just a few hours ago had moved about the world on his mother’s back. Weaning, in lemurs as in humans, was a complex and traumatic psycho-physiological process. Now, with his mother gone, the transition would be full of danger.

Meanwhile the dead were dead forever, and the living were hungry. Fifty yards away, in the big, windowless building where the nocturnals lived and the clock ticked to Madagascar time, the creatures of darkness – the slow lorises, the fat-tailed dwarf lemurs, the pottos – were preparing for sleep. But for the rest it was breakfast time, and a hungry lemur was an alert lemur. Restless snorts and clucks could be heard through the half-open door of the main building.   David stood in a walk-in refrigerator, selecting from a larder calibrated to the desires of the lemurian palate. He laid a sheaf of bamboo on a cart outside, and then several big clusters of purple grapes. Bananas in plastic bags. A heap of fresh, green kale. A pile of cucumbers. Carrots. Two honeydew melons. Sweet potatoes. Broccoli. Apples. Unshucked sweet corn. All this he wheeled across the kitchen and deposited in the deep sink, to be submerged in water, disinfected with a measure of bleach, and then rinsed.

The brightly lit kitchen shone with clean tile and polished stainless steel. As David laid out the food, two other keepers, Melissa Lauer and Stephanie Richardson, entered the room. Stephanie was Messalina’s keeper.

David turned toward them. “Do you know . . .” he started.

“We just found out,” said Melissa.

Stephanie stood in front of a shelving unit, staring at the stacks of stainless steel feeding bowls. Her face was expressionless. Both of the other keepers turned away, busying themselves with small chores.   “She seemed just fine,” Stephanie said finally in a low voice, the words aimed as much at the feeding bowls as to anyone in the room. “Then in the afternoon she was leaning against the side of the cage, with her arms crossed in front of her and her head down on them. I thought she looked fine, until she raised her head. And then, I saw her eye, and oh my God, oh my God, where’s Cathy? Get Cathy!”

“It’s a bad day,” said David.

“There was no way to know,” said Melissa.

Stephanie continued to stare at the shelves. “She was such a wonderful animal,” Stephanie continued. “She was just a wonderful mother.”

For a while, the three keepers worked silently in the kitchen. There was something about the lemurs that went beyond science. Lemurs were kin. They and their scattered prosimian cousins were the remainders of a once populous group which, many millions of years ago, had given rise to the monkeys and the brainier creatures that, in turn, gave life to Homo sapiens.

Their reward for this was death, as the smarter animals laid siege to their ancestors’ ecological niches. For the lemurs, the last redoubt was the isolated island of Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa. But nature gave no quarter and as the 20th century ended they were in danger of being overwhelmed by humans who, driven by their own hunger, were clearing the forest and hunting the lemurs for food. And now, in Durham, in the largest colony of lemurs outside Madagascar, a desperate attempt was under way to rescue some fraction from extinction.

The primate center charter was to study lemurs and, in the process, contribute to their survival. Animals were caught on Madagascar and brought to be studied and bred. Sometimes, when a species’ reproductive process was adequately understood, breeding pairs could be distributed to zoos. Duke scientists, meanwhile, worked to discover how best to reproduce the most sensitive species, which included the golden-crowned sifaka. Other groups were trying to save some remnant of the Madagascar rain forest. Perhaps, if all went unimaginably well, captive-bred animals could be reintroduced in sustainable numbers.

But sometimes it seemed the lemur had more to give to science than science had to give to the lemur. The sifakas endured years of intestinal problems until researchers discovered that their unusual digestive tracts required a great deal of roughage but only a small amount of fruit. The elusive, nocturnal aye-ayes were thought almost impossible to breed in captivity, and at one point experts were tempted to abandon the effort. Then they discovered that they were improperly identifying the sexes, and trying to breed males with males.

Meanwhile, for the vet, lemur medicine was an exercise in guesswork and worry. Every medical decision was presented against a background of ignorance, and one disaster often led to another. The death of a mother was all too often compounded, later, by the death of any immature offspring she left behind. They starved, despite efforts to feed them, or they developed intestinal problems and died. Or perhaps, as some said, they died of broken hearts. In any case, they often broke the hearts of their keepers.

Now, around the corner and down the hall from the kitchen, Messalina lay in a plastic bag in a chest freezer. A few yards further down the hall in the nursing enclosure, Messalina’s mate, Agrippa, had climbed onto a high shelf, near the ceiling. There he sat, immobile, young Valens clutched to his lap. Both animals stared blankly into space.

Back in the kitchen, David sliced the fruit and vegetables with a large chef’s knife. Slivers of yam, wedges of apples, round disks of banana slices with their skins on. Purple grapes, cucumber sticks, green chunks of broccoli.

Monkey chow was equally essential to the diet. It came in thick, short cylinders, just right for an animal to hold in its hand. It was nutritious, but it was also dry and bland – David knew that, for a fact, because a few years back he had sampled some himself. He figured he was obligated, if he was going to feed it to his charges.

Now he set a few pieces aside and methodically pulverized them with a two-pound maul. That was for an aging mongoose lemur named Manuel, who was born sometime in the 1970s and whose teeth had worn down so far that it was painful for him to chew. Befuddled, an old Hapalemur female in another cage, had a similar problem. Without special care, they’d both starve to death. That was the fate of many captive lemurs, in fact. Protected from predators, they outlived their teeth.

David knew each of his animals by name, age, culinary desires and personality quirks. They knew him, as well. They met him at the door of their walk-in cages and watched in excitement as he distributed the food into widely spaced bowls. Often, he slipped an extra morsel to a sick or elderly animal. This morning one aging lemur would get a slice of honeydew, a black-and-white an extra piece of banana. Such little favors meant longer lives, which was good. But, unavoidably, it also created a bond between the big primate and the little one – and, of course, that was frowned upon.

The tension was a constant. If the animals might be released back into the jungle, as a group of black-and-whites recently were, they should be as wild as possible. But practical matters dictated some necessary taming. Lemurs kept in the open enclosures were the subjects of routine scientific observation, for example, which would be impossible if the animals associated humans with food. They’d all come down and gather around the scientist, to beg. So David always wore a white lab coat when he fed them, and as a result the lemurs only associated humans with food if the human wore a white coat.

Some years back, one of the black-and-whites went on vacation, as they say at the primate center, and was discovered in a garage in town. By the time David got there, though, the animal had abandoned the garage and climbed high into a tree, where he could sit and watch the pandemonium below.   David didn’t want to dart the animal, lest he injure it either with the dart or in the subsequent fall, so he sent back for his food bucket and his white coat. He put on the coat, and rattled the bucket, and the lemur scampered down the tree to be fed . . . and hauled back home.

Now, as the morning continued, visitors and volunteers began to arrive. The news of Messalina’s death circulated quickly. One woman came to the window that looked into Messalina’s cage. Agrippa and Valens sat side by side on the ledge, indifferent to the stares of the humans.

“He knows something is wrong,” she whispered, her voice trembling. “He isn’t sure what, yet, but he knows something is wrong.”

Meanwhile, as the news spread, the phone began to ring, bringing inquiries, messages of condolences, and echoing the question that rested uncomfortably in everyone’s mind:

What will happen to Valens?

Down the hallway David slipped into his lab coat, picked up a bucket of monkey chow and headed out for his enclosures. He always enjoyed this chore, even on an otherwise bad day. His walk was jaunty, the bucket swung, and the white lab coat flapped around his work boots. Beyond the electric fence, a ring-tailed lemur slid silently down a tree and wallowed after him, its signature tail held high in the air. It was soon joined by another. Then two smaller and quicker red-fronteds came scampering up.

David feigned ignorance of the growing entourage. The whole point of the enclosures was to keep the animals as wild as possible, in as natural an environment as possible. Granted, it wasn’t a rain forest – but in North Carolina it was the best that could be done.

A hundred yards down the trail David reached into the bucket, grabbed a handful of monkey chow, and hurled it into the underbrush. The lemurs rushed after it. The keeper kept walking, throwing another handful in a different direction. He kept this up until the caloric quota for this group had been met. He headed through the trees, toward the territory occupied by a second group of animals.

A pond bordered the two territories. As David approached a bullfrog grumped, and there was a loud splash. Then another, smaller splash. David paused, reaching into the bucket. Several pieces of monkey chow arched into the sky and fell back into the pond. The surface erupted in a finned frenzy of small fish.

A few hundred yards down the path, more ringtails appeared, followed by the ruffed, and then two big black-and-whites. The chunks flew. Again, the lemurs ran for it. All except one black-and-white.

That one bounded onto a log, grabbed David’s left leg, spun off his arm and perched on his shoulder.

“You’re not supposed to do that,” David said, handing him a piece of monkey chow.

Back at the facility, he continued his chores. In the cage of one biting animal, where no one else was allowed inside, he raked up the droppings and put them into a green bucket, for disposal. Another cage, nearby, contained three Hapalemurs, two females and a male. One of the females had a tiny brown infant clinging to her side. The other was due.

David couldn’t tell from where he stood whether she’d delivered yet or not. He didn’t see a baby, but then again, Hapalemurs sometimes parked their newborns in their nesting boxes. He stepped inside the cage.

The mother-to-be surveyed him, suspiciously, from a distance.

David looked speculatively at the nest box, moved to stick his head inside, hesitated, then looked back at the female. If he stuck his head in the box, and she did have a baby in there, she would do . . . what?

David kept his rabies vaccination current. He had been bitten many times by his lemurs. His worst experience at the facility, though, had been the time he’d been chased through the forest by a rabid raccoon.

Still. He peered at the brown female. Even a Hapalemur had a pretty good bite.

Then, judging the moment right, he made a quick movement toward the nest box, stuck his head inside, and then pulled it out.

The female sat on the branch and watched him, not moving.

“Nothing,” he said. “She’s due, though, any time.”

Back in the building, David took the van keys from the desk and headed out on his thrice-weekly fodder expedition. He needed some mimosa, some sweet gum, and some sumac. Sumac, by a lucky chance of nature, resembled some plant native to Madagascar – or at least the lemurs thought so.

David also hoped to find some bamboo. In particular, he wanted some bamboo with fresh shoots – not an easy thing to come by, this late in a dry summer. But he knew all the local patches.

The shoots were for Befuddled, the ancient Hapalemur.

“She likes the tender little shoots. It’s all she can eat, actually. It’s more trouble, but it’s the little extra things like that that keeps them alive.”

David steered the van down Lemur Lane and turned right on the main road. A few minutes later he parked near a large stand of bamboo on the main campus. He paced the margins of the patch, a pair of garden shears in his right hand. Occasionally he lopped off a short stem with some new growth on it. But what he found, while suitable for most of the animals, wouldn’t do for Befuddled. The stems were too woody, and she wouldn’t be able to eat them.

Some months ago the vet had thought to put Befuddled down, lest she die in pain. But Melissa had successfully intervened. She pointed out that she, Melissa, dealt with Befuddled every day, and in her opinion Befuddled didn’t seem to be in any pain. Life was precious; give her a few more months. The vet had agreed, on the proviso that the old lemur didn’t lose much more weight. The line was eventually drawn at 550 grams. Beyond that lay the final act of mercy.

As a result, Melissa and the other keepers had made it a project to bring Befuddled morsels she could not resist. David’s part of this conspiracy was to find the right bamboo shoots, and not come home with excuses.

Another short drive brought the van to a patch of mimosa. With the care of a matriarch shopping the greengrocer’s, he selected an armload of top leaves. The next stop was another bamboo patch, which he searched in vain for shoots. Where now? He decided to try a stand of bamboo behind a nearby row of fraternity houses.  There he found what he was searching for.

“Look at this!” he said, holding up a long, thin shoot. “She’ll love this!”

Thence to his favorite sumac patch. On the way, he hesitated over the question of why he and the other keepers bothered to keep an old lemur like Befuddled alive, so long after her breeding potential was exhausted.

“Well . . .  I don’t . . .  I guess . . . She’s had a long life, a lot of offspring. She . . . well, in a nutshell, she deserves it. We owe it to her. It’s like retirement. We do this for her and it makes her happy.”

It was a clear, bright day, and the van rolled smoothly down the highway. David seemed lost in thought.

“And besides,” he said, finally, “it makes us feel good.”

Back at the primate center, a large bus idled in the driveway while groups of tourists were shepherded around the center by volunteer guides.

This is Romeo, a Diademed sifaka, and he is the only one of his kind in captivity; the center is sending an expedition to Madagascar early next year in hopes of finding him a mate. Over here is a ringtailed lemur, and you can easily tell why they are called that. The small brown ones are Hapalemurs, which you can remember because it sounds like half-a-lemur, and that’s about the size they are. See the infant clinging to its mother? The other one is pregnant and will deliver any day now É

The tourists were always mesmerized. They were rarely prepared for the delicacy of the animals, the grace with which they moved, or the intelligence that seemed to dwell behind the huge, front-facing eyes.

Steve Burnett, one of the guides, belonged to a group of computer experts which had adopted the primate center. He had become fascinated with the animals, then fascinated as well with the general human fascination with them. The attraction, he finally decided, was the contradictory ability of prosimians to be both like and unlike humans at the same time.

“It’s not one or the other,” he mused between tours, “but the combination.”

The lemurs stemmed from the early prosimians that were the parents of the apes and the grandparents of humans. There was something about them that was unspeakably ancient. Lemurs had snouts and a range of olfactory sensation that was beyond the ken of short-nosed humans. And they moved differently, sometimes so differently as to seem alien. The slender loris, a night creature, had a form and walk that brought to some minds a vision of a banana on stilts. Slow lorises could move so slowly as to seem stationary. At the other extreme, sifakas were the grasshoppers of the primate world, with legs strong enough to hurl them horizontally from tree trunk to tree trunk. Melissa, the keeper, often closed her eyes rather than watch her animals play in the treetops. She was sure they were going to miss a branch and die.

But whatever their differences, their eyes were evocative of all that was most deeply human. Binocular vision was the signature invention of the prosimian family. Large, close-set eyes provided the overlapping imagery – and the acute depth perception critical to the survival of an animal that navigated treetops. The optical channels of the prosimian brain, meanwhile, were forced to expand in order to process the stream of real-time imagery. This neural circuitry laid the groundwork for the later evolution of the logic networks that would characterize monkeys and humans. Along the way, something mysterious happened, and sight became vision.

But the past was not yet sealed off, and to gaze into the eyes of a lemur was, at least for the human, an emotional experience. And it was the eyes, most often, that the visitors remembered – huge, knowing eyes of swirled gold, or sometimes brown or even blue, looking out from the nightlands beyond the origins of human consciousness, eyes that seemed to still possess some wisdom lost to its descendants, eyes that seemed to peer directly into the mystical soul of the Homo sapiens who stood, mouth gaping and heart leaping, outside the mesh boundaries of the cage.

Or perhaps that was all a romantic figment of the imagination, the output of some interference or feedback pattern set up between the related software packages that ran behind the wise eyes of the lemur and the curious ones of the human.

Certainly life was not magic – not for the veterinarian, not for David, and not for Stephanie, the keeper who would now be responsible for the motherless Valens.

Life, real life, consisted of calories of intake and grams of weight. Life was protein of monkey chow and sumac leaf, converted by enzymes into milligrams of sifaka muscle and bone. These things, more than any others, would henceforth be the measured perimeters of Valens’ life. With them, he would live or die.

Stephanie opened the door softly, and entered the cage. In her left hand was an electronic scale, with a baseplate about a foot across and, in the back, a pedestal rising to a liquid crystal readout.

She moved smoothly, making no sudden motions. She placed the scale in the wood shavings near the middle of the room.

Baseline numbers. Stephanie needed baseline numbers.

From the high shelf Agrippa watched her, blankly. But interest flickered in the youngster’s eyes.

Stephanie opened her right hand to reveal a sliver of yam.

Four golden eyes stared.

The flesh of the yam flashed seductively.

A minute passed.

Agrippa’s eyes fixed on the bit of yam. Behind the eyes, circuits closed, neuropeptides flowed, produced correlations.

The movement, when it finally came, was yellow and fluid, and almost too quick to see. A rightward movement, long arm extended, hooking around a branch, body sliding after, sideways, then in the air, then spiraling around the branch, then descending.

Valens moved with his father, floating through the air and onto his back.

Halfway down the branch, Agrippa’s body seemed to shrug, shedding the unfamiliar burden.

No. Agrippa was not a mother. There was no mother.

Briefly Valens was in the air. Then his arm snagged a branch and he clung, hanging halfway down the branch, watching his father descend. Then, slowly, alone, he climbed down.

Agrippa was interested in Stephanie, and the morsels she had. He clung to her arm and she slipped him some yam, but it was Valens she wished to entice.

Come here, sweetheart.

Come here, little one.

He came, hesitantly, shyly. He flirted with the treat, stepped sideways, feinted forward, caressed the rising neck of the scale, found its verticality comforting, and crawled up, perching atop the readout.

No, no, not there. Here.

Sliver of yam, just beyond grasp.

Down on the base plate.

Slowly, he came, following the treat, stepping hesitantly onto the scale.

Numbers flashed on the readout.

950 grams.

Just about 2 pounds.

It was fortunate that sifakas were so fond of sumac. It was so common in North Carolina and, what’s more, it froze well. Mimosa came out of the freezer looking like cooked spinach, and the animals turned their noses up at it. Thawed sweetgum was as bad, if not worse. But sumac, by fortunate chance, came out of the freezer almost as good as if it were fresh. The sifakas could tell the difference, of course; they were no dummies. But they accepted it. So each summer David collected sumac, bags and bags of sumac, and froze them against the coming winter. The sifakas consumed about a bag a day, and he had so far this summer squirreled away 165 bags. They filled five freezers.

In theory that should be enough, but he intended to put up more. One could never tell when the winter would come, or how long it would last.

Now, in a clearing not far from the center, the keeper parceled out the vegetation he’d cut, putting it into piles on a wire table. Engraved plastic labels along the edge of the table spelled out the names of each family group, marking where its ration would be piled. Drusilla, Julian, Eugenius. Flavia, Nigel and Jovian. Marcella, Trajan, Alexianus, Livia – nine groups, total, most of them Coquerel’s Sifakas. The golden-crowned were on the end.

David walked down the row, putting a branch of sumac on each. Then he walked up the row, counting out boughs of mimosa. Then back the other way, distributing sweetgum.

Finished, he stood at the end of the rack for a moment and surveyed the piles with satisfaction. They’d like that.

His eyes fell to the stack immediately in front of him.

Messalina, Agrippa, Valens.

He stared at the food for a heartbeat, two. Then, slowly, he reached out and carefully removed a third.

David’s shift ended at 3 p.m. and it was his custom, before leaving, to make one final round.

He walked through the nocturnal building, where the lorises and the fat-tailed dwarf lemurs were sleeping through the Madagascan night. Then he looped around to check the pregnant Hapalemur one final time. Life would be more symmetrical, somehow, if a day that began in death could end in birth. But it was not to be.

Inside the complex of pens he stopped to caress Diphda, a three-legged red ruffed lemur that the keepers raised by hand after its siblings destroyed its right arm. Then he paused in front of a padlocked cage containing a Coquerel’s Sifaka named Nero. Nero was evicted from his group as a young male; normally he would have sought out a female with which to form the nucleus of a new group, but in Duke Forest that was not a possibility. So the scientists were trying to decide what to do with him. Perhaps the expedition in January would bring him back a mate.

Maybe they would bring back a golden-crowned sifaka, as well. A female.

Meanwhile, Nero was a gregarious individual, friendly to a fault. He wanted companionship, and if he couldn’t have a fellow sifaka to play with he’d readily settle for a human. There was a lock on his cage – not to keep Nero in but to discourage the keepers from making him tamer than he already was.

David withdrew the key from his pocket and inserted it into the lock. The tumblers clicked, the gate creaked open and David stepped quickly inside. Instantly Nero leaped onto his shoulder and then into his arms. They tussled. The lemur was in the air, on the wire, on David’s head, twirling in David’s arms. They roughhoused for five minutes, the two primates, and then, with a final tussle of fur, David called an end to the play and stepped outside.

As he relocked the door, his attention was attracted by a movement a few cages down. It was Agrippa, who had moved into the outside section of his cage.

Valens watched from a limb, halfway across the enclosure. But Agrippa flowed across the cage like a golden blur, touching post and limb only in transition before coming to rest lightly on the wire wall that separated his world from the keeper’s.

David stepped up to the wire.

Propithecus tattersalli stared at Homo sapiens sapiens through deep, lonely pools of liquid gold.

Time passed. Seconds. But they echoed in the millennia.

Then David reached out, through the wire, and touched the prosimian’s shoulder. The sifaka closed his deep eyes and tilted his golden head to the side, resting it against the keeper’s big finger.
“Oh Agrippa,” David said softly. “I know you’re so sad.”


Agrippa lived until the age of 18, Valens until age 9.   You can read more about the Duke Primate Center’s golden-crowned shifakas here:  http://lemur.duke.edu/titus-his-story/

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