Eric Cudar, owner of Gulfport Garage and two ring-tailed lemurs, is used to explaining himself.
For the past 20 years, Cudar has shared his life with lemurs Fonzie and later, Charmin. The largest room in his home, the dining area, is completely transformed into a primate friendly pen for the two strepsirrhine primates – “dumb monkeys,” Cudar jokes.
Fonzie, Cudar’s original lemur, and Charmin – named after the toilet paper – spend their days eating monkey biscuits that Cudar gets from a local feed store and walking the suburbs of Gulfport by harness.
“Charmin is a sweetheart, and Fonzie is more of a character,” Cudar said. “A lot of people think they’re raccoons.”
In 2006, pre-Charmin, a much younger Fonzie could be spotted in the window of Gulfport Garage most days.
That was until a potential lawsuit, and a lack of license banished him to Lemur Land in Cudar’s home.
Two decades ago, Cudar saw an advertisement for ring-tailed lemurs in the classified section of a Tampa Bay newspaper. He’d been fascinated by the animals his entire life, but the phone call landed him on the line with the Hillsborough County Police Department on a sting for illegal lemur buyers.
Captivated, he called a second number to try another seller, an exotic breeder for Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park. The park had bred too many lemurs, and a visit landed him with a very fluffy “ridiculously expensive” new pet.
For three years, Cudar and Fonzie went to work at the central Gulfport repair shop, Fonzie on a tiny harness and with an inclination to sit on guests’ shoulders and accept scratches from curious visitors.
One day a woman came in right before Gulfport Garage closing hours. Fonzie was out of his cage, walking free.
According to Cudar, the lemur tried to jump on her shoulders after she attempted to pet him, resulting in a scratch. Cudar drove her to the hospital and payed the expenses.
He thought that was the end of it. Three days later, animal control officers began coming to Gulfport Garage, Cudar’s home and even his mother’s house, demanding the Madagascarian animal.
There is little lemur protocol in law enforcement, and Cudar found himself making desperate plans to smuggle the lemur to a Caribbean island, arguing with animal control while begging for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to step in.
Fonzie made the front page of the then-St. Petersburg Times on Easter Sunday circa 2006; he became something of a local celebrity awaiting trial. “Free Fonzie” was heard up and down Beach Boulevard.
The woman attempted to sue him for $500,000, but the case was dropped before it went to court after it was discovered that she had a history of living off litigation.
“I was ready to have a complete breakdown,” Cudar said. “They wanted to kill Fonzie.”
Cudar obtained a Class III Wildlife Permit at the advisement of the FWC that allowed for Fonzie to stay at home, but the damage was done.
“It’s a shame; prior to that interaction Fonzie was super friendly, and would walk up to anyone and try to lick them,” Cudar said. “Before that, I was the biggest baddest thing he could think of, but when they tried to take him from me he saw me panic. Now, he thinks he has to protect me.”
Now, the shop owner says he can see a territorial aspect of Fonzie’s personality that wasn’t there before.
The lemur was lonely, so after winning five out of six numbers in the Florida Lottery, Cudar went to the same breeder three years later and bought him baby brother Charmin.
The lemurs, Cudar’s greatest loves, are incredibly high maintenance and a lifetime commitment, he says.
“I don’t let them run the house without me because it’s like having a couple of two-year-olds that can reach whatever and do whatever they want,” Cudar said. “If you take one out of the pen and not the other, they’ll start howling and crying…they have their little squabbles.”
There was a time when Fonzie would ride on slow-moving ceiling fans and eventually break them; he would kick off as the fan fell out of the ceiling.
“I’ve been outwitted by ‘The Fonz’ more than once,” Cudar said.
Once, before Charmin, Cudar left Fonzie with a girlfriend and went to Poland for an operation. The lemur was so stressed, he stopped drinking and eating.
“When I came home, he was so dehydrated that he could barely scream. All he wanted to do was lick my face,” Cudar said. “I got him to drink by pouring water down my face.”
Charmin, who is slightly off-colored and overweight, would probably not make it in a lemur preserve, Cudar says.
“He looks like the Chris Farley of lemurs,” Cudar said. “He’s so squeezably soft, he’s irresistible.”
Fonzie, who knows how to turn on a faucet and adjust the water temperature, goes to the bathroom in the bathtub when he’s running freely. He used to use the toilet, but stopped after the seat hit him on the head and knocked him into the water.
The average lemur lives about 30 years in captivity and 20 in the wild. If both Fonzie and Charmin were wild-bred lemurs, they’d be on their way out the door.
“I know an animal is not the same as a child,” Cudar said, but to him, Fonzie and Charmin are “somewhere in between a dog and a person.”
Want more Fonzie? See him and many other pets of Gulfport in the Gabber’s upcoming 2022 calendar. Pre-order at firstname.lastname@example.org.