Tarongas Chimpanzee Grand Dames Notch Up 168 Years
Tuesday 22nd June 2010

Taronga Zoo is celebrating over 168 years of Chimpanzee history with three of the world’s oldest Chimpanzees.

The ‘three old dames’ of Taronga, Bessie aged 60, Lulu and Spitter who are believed to be 58 and 50 respectively share between themselves 168 years.

Taronga Zoo’s Primate Manager, Louise Grossfeldt, said: “We realised these three represented a triumph both in the Zoo-based program for chimpanzees and also for the robust good health of these mighty matriarchs.”

The grandest of the ‘Old Dames’ is Bessie, the oldest of the Chimpanzee group at the Zoo and also believed to be one of the oldest living chimpanzees alive today in human care. 

Sharing 98 percent of the same genetics as humans, Bessie is showing her age. Keepers suspect that she suffers from dementia as she often seems to be “not quite with us”. When keepers signal the group to come into their night dens, the group all run together and sometimes Bessie needs to be reminded the rest of the group have come in.

“Considering most chimpanzees only live until about 45 years of age, 60 is quite an achievement. This is mainly due to the expert keeper and veterinary care our old girls receive.”

Lulu, the second dame of the trio is believed to have been wild caught around 1959 and after living in a ciircus for many years, she began her life at Taronga in 1965. Old records show Lulu’s circus background made her used to human contact and activities such as drawing or watching television.

Louise said: “Lulu can be a tyrant and often intolerant of other family groups. She used to be quiet nasty but now she is much more calm and friendly. She has definitely mellowed in her old age.  Lulu is also an outrageous flirt with her sights set firmly on the object of her affection – the Zoo’s Senior Veterinarian, Dr Larry Vogelnest.”

“When we recently moved our chimp group for renovations to their exhibit, Lulu was comforted by the sound of Larry’s voice and reached out to him, holding his hand through her transport crate as she made the anxious move.”

‘Spitter’ celebrated her 50th birthday this year and was born at Taronga Zoo. Throughout her lifetime she has made a valuable contribution to the survival of her species, being mother to ‘Sacha’ and grandmother to ‘Shickamoo’ and ‘Sule’.  Her male offspring have also gone on to breeding programs in other Australian zoos.

“Spitter is exceptionally family-orientated and a very good mother but as she gets older she is becoming more intolerant of lower ranking individuals. She doesn’t suffer fools,” said Louise.

Chimpanzees are the closest living relative to humans. They are extremely social animals that live in groups and extended families. These groups can vary in size from five to 40 chimps, ruled by a dominant or “alpha” male.

Up until 30 years ago scientists’ distinguished man from apes believing that man was the only animal that could make and use tools. Now research has shown that chimps are known to be tool users in the wild. It is a common practice for chimpanzees in Taronga’s group to use sticks or long grass to extract food treats such as low-fat yogurt from the fake termite mounds.

Beside the three grand dames, Taronga’s Chimpanzee group is a family just like any other – with lots of quirky characters and a fascinating range of personalities.

The group has expanded to a total of 19 chimpanzees. The youngest members of the group are ‘Sembe’ and ‘Sule’ who were born within weeks of each other in 2008. The renovations to the Chimpanzee exhibit will allow for more chimpanzees to be introduced to the group and enable Taronga to continue further breeding efforts to provide an insurance against extinction of the species. Sadly, man’s closest living relatives are listed as endangered with habitat destruction proving to be the biggest threat to the species.