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Paper suggests Kenyan monkey inspired Dr. Seuss’s Lorax character — and that monkey’s not doing great now, either

Is this the real-life Lorax? Is that a real Truffula tree?
Is this the real-life Lorax? Is that a real Truffula tree?(Anup Shah/Nature Picture Library)

The furry orange protagonist of ‘‘The Lorax’’ and the Truffula trees for which he spoke may have been inspired by specific monkeys and trees in Kenya, according to researchers at Dr. Seuss’ alma mater, Dartmouth College.

The 1971 book pits a short, mustachioed ‘‘sort of man’’ who ‘‘speaks for the trees’’ against the Once-ler, a greedy industrialist harvesting the trees into near extinction. Published just after the birth of the modern environmental movement in the United States, the story has won praise for promoting the conservation of natural resources and condemnation from the logging industry.

Some have speculated that Seuss, the pen name of Springfield native Theodor Seuss Geisel, was inspired by cypress trees near his California home. But anthropology professor Nathaniel Dominy suggests the whistling thorn acacia commonly found in Kenya makes more sense, given that Seuss wrote much of the book while visiting a safari club there.

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The region also is home to the patas monkey, which, like the Lorax, has orange fur and stands on two feet. And in a paper published Monday, Dominy and his co-authors argue their theory could challenge some traditional interpretations of the text.

The Lorax with a spindly tree the researchers say may have been modeled on the whistling thorn acacia
The Lorax with a spindly tree the researchers say may have been modeled on the whistling thorn acacia(Dr. Seuss Enterprises)

The Lorax has been described as an ‘‘eco-policeman asserting his authority,’’ they write. But viewing him as a patas monkey might change that perception given that the species relies on the whistling thorn acacia trees for more than 80 percent of its diet.

‘‘A lot of people criticize the Lorax and say he’s too angry, he’s too upset, that his rhetoric is problematic and that it’s not the way environmentalists should be engaging with policy makers or polluting industries,’’ Dominy said in an interview last week. ‘‘Our argument is, no, if the Lorax is based on a living animal that has this tight, co-evolved relationship with a tree, then it’s better to think of the Lorax not as some indignant steward of the environment but as a participating member of the environment. And then this anger is so much more understandable.’’

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Joe Fassler, a journalist who once called the Lorax a ‘‘bossy, pedantic guilt-tripper’’ in an article for The Atlantic, said he imagined the Lorax as neither human nor animal, perhaps a ‘‘forest spirit’’ serving as an outside arbiter.

The new interpretation makes the character much more vulnerable, he said. ‘‘If it was Seuss’s intention to do that, it’s very cool that he left it subtle and not explicit,’’ he said.

This patas monkey has a mustache, but it’s not as bushy as the Lorax’s
This patas monkey has a mustache, but it’s not as bushy as the Lorax’s(Yvonne A. de Jong and Thomas M. Butynski)

For years, Dominy had seen patas monkeys on his own trips to Kenya and remarked to others that they looked like something Seuss would create. But he didn’t start researching a possible connection to the Lorax until he started reading the book to his children and struck up a conversation with Donald Pease, an English professor at Dartmouth and author of a Seuss biography.

They performed a computer-generated analysis to confirm that the Lorax’s face looks more like a patas monkey than most similar-looking Seussian characters.

The Lorax in a Truffula tree
The Lorax in a Truffula tree(Dr. Seuss Enterprises)