Saturday, August 11, 2007

The queen is gone

She arrived at the Taronga Zoo in Sidney Australia as a bouncing seven year-old in 1954 and quickly established herself as one of the highest ranked females in the band of 19 living there. In May she celebrated her 60th birthday with four generations of her family including her great-granddaughter Kuma, 15, and her great-grandson Furahi, 4. On Friday afternoon, August 10, Fifi, sporting a grey beard, wrinkles and bald, quietly passed away in her bed.

"I believe she is the backbone of the group and she's always the peacemaker when there are arguments among the families. Fifi shows that she's on the ball and very much a part of this group, " stated Louise Grossfeldt, senior Primate Keeper at the zoo.

Fifi, one of the world's oldest chimpanzees in captivity maintained her ranking among the group despite her age and frailty, that included arthritis. Grossfeldt stated that she continued to enjoy life to the fullest with the rest of the group which includes 55 year-old Lulu and 57 year-old Bessi. She had taken to enjoying sipping from a cup of chamomile tea each morning in the past few years while enjoying a senior role in the female hierarchy. On Thursday, she stayed uncharacteristically in her bed and her keepers worried that she was not well. They gave her fresh bedding and her favorite foods and other chimps in the group visited her throughout the day. Friday afternoon she peacefully passed away.

Taronga Zoo is internationally renowned for it's chimpanzee breeding record, having over 80 born there to date. They are also one of the first to begin housing them as a family group. Chimpanzees rarely live to 40 years-old in the wild and the average for them in captivity is 50 years. Grossfeldt stated that the females do much better at ther zoo and it may be from the social setting and the advances in care available to zoo animals that have made the difference.

The record for the oldest chimpanzee in captivity still belongs to Cheeta who starred in the 1930's Tarzan movies. He recently celebrated his 75th birthday in Palm Springs CA. Cheeta, who is listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as the "world's oldest" enjoys life along with several other retired showbiz primates at the Cheeta Primate Foundation in Palm Springs.

"We just love them and love to do things for them. They made tons of people happy, they had to endure a lot to make people happy, and we want to give back to them, provide them with friends," stated Abe Karajerjian, a biological anthropologist who helps Westfall.

Dan Westfall, an actor and comedian, adopted Cheeta from his uncle, Tony Gentry, about 10 years ago. Gentry, an animal trainer, discovered Cheeta on an animal scouting trip to Africa in the 1930's and had him star in 12 Tarzan movies and end his career with a role in the 1967 movie "Doctor Doolittle." Cheeta now spends his days at the Foundation socializing with other apes and humans. He also has developed an interest in painting abstracts, an acitivty they provide to the primates to stimulate them. Westfall stated that he routinely sells Cheeta's paintings and all the proceeds go to support the Foundation.

Terry Wolf, wildlife director at Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee FL cares for 35 chimpanzees including Little Mama, who starred in a traveling ice skating show before she came to them in 1967. She is believed to be approximately 65 years-old and is reportedly in fairly good health and still very social.

As tragic the early lives of many of these old chimpanzees may have been and even though they aren't "free", there seems to now be the opportunity for them to live lengthy,enjoyable lives surrounded by family at their end.

of note:
Dan Westfall
Cheeta Primate Foundation
P O Box 8162
Palm Springs CA 92263

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