It is with a heavy heart that I write this blog. It is my sad duty if you may, to report that on Tuesday 11th January Taronga Zoo lost its oldest Chimpanzee Bessie.
Bessie was a wild Chimpanzee who arrived at Taronga in 1954. Animal records in those days were a shambolic affair and so her age is only an estimate, but an educated one, which put her at 60 years.
Bessie who for many years had a skinny frame was as tough as an Ox and many of us believed she had many more years in her. However approximately two weeks ago she appeared sick. Keepers naturally were alert to this and she was monitored carefully thereafter. By the 11th of January it was obvious that she had succumbed to the numerous debilitating effects of old age. As we are all aware there is no medical cure for old age.
In the days before her demise she spent her time asleep and in the company of her lifelong friend Lulu. Other individuals would come periodically and sit with her often spending their time swatting the flies away from her. Another wonderful example of Chimpanzee understanding and compassion for others.
I have often spoken in my blogs about the privilege that Great Ape keepers enjoy by working with these animals. They are as individual in personality as you and I are and so keepers and Chimpanzees can easily build rapport and friendships with each other. In an obvious sign of that respect for Bessie as an individual it was heart warming to see the throng of past and present Chimp keepers that gathered at the night house to pay their last respects to such a grand old lady. Such an act clearly demonstrates how much these animals mean to us.
Longevity of Chimps in the wild is something that is currently being re-evaluated as the long term studies in Gombe are surprising us with the known ages of individuals residing there. It is a well known fact that animals live longer in zoos due to the quality of care that they receive. 60 is indeed an admirable age and while this age does indeed effect the physical attributes of said individuals, old females such as Bessie and Fifi before her are the lynch pins of a successful community. Their maturity and life experience is often called upon by other members in order to alleviate altercations and facilitate reconciliation. It is the mutual respect shown by antagonists to these senior females that can prevent conflict. This scenario is often seen halting potential problems caused by squabbling infants. In other words individuals like Bessie have important roles in a healthy community.
Allan, Senior Primate Keeper