On Friday, 30 November, 2012, the Oregon Zoo's oldest resident, a chimpanzee named Coco, was euthanized after her caregivers determined that her condition had deteriorated to the point that she no longer had a good quality of life. You can find more details about that decision in Katy Muldoon's article in The Oregonian, "Oregon Zoo says goodbye to Coco the chimp, its oldest animal." Below is the article I wrote for the Zoo Volunteer newsletter.
There’s no one around who remembers the day Coco arrived at the Zoo in 1961. Her record in the first historical chimpanzee studbook listed her parents as ‘UNK’ (unknown) rather than wild, but it is assumed that she was captured in Africa as a baby and sold into the pet trade. She was estimated to be about 9 years old when she came to us.
Within about two years she started having babies, fathered by Bill, the resident male. Accurate records weren’t kept in those days, but it appears Coco may have had as many as a dozen babies (including some twins) before our girl Delilah was born in 1973. In the wild, a chimpanzee has four babies on average in her lifetime. But while Coco was having babies, she wasn’t getting to be a mom. Some of the babies may have died very young. Some were taken from her so they could be sent to other zoos. By the time Delilah came along, she didn’t seem to know how to take care of an infant. So they pulled Delilah and then Leah and Leah’s twin sister Rachel and put them in a nursery where humans took care of them. That was routine for the time. It was only in 1981, after having spent several years in the enrichment program learning sign language, that the youngsters (including Charlie and Chloe) were introduced to Coco and the other adult females.
In 1975, when the Primate area was under new management, Coco had a baby girl, Josie. Coco’s keepers worked to help her realize her potential as a mother. They didn’t take the new baby away from her, even when she got agitated and tried to shove little Josie at them. They encouraged her to nurse her baby and left them alone as much as possible so they were able to bond. Coco demonstrated that she could be a mom. A very good mom. She also raised David (b. 1983) and Joshua (b. 1989), her two sons by Charlie.
It was when Josh was still a baby that I first met Coco. At almost 40 she was already old for a chimpanzee, and she was mothering an energetic and willful little boy. I remember watching as she would climb into her sleeping nest and wrap the fidgety kid in her arms so that only his head and maybe one arm would be free. Only then could she nap in peace. Eventually Josh got bigger – and more mischievous – and he went to the Kansas City Zoo in 1995 to start his own family. Coco didn’t have any more babies.
As chimpanzees go, Coco wasn’t a charmer like Charlie. She didn’t engage the public like Delilah or Chloe. Instead of looking visitors in the eye, she seemed to look right past them. Maybe it was her early treatment by humans, or maybe it was just her personality. Over the years she experienced a lot of losses. Her babies were taken from her. Later the children she raised were sent away. In 1999 she lost Debbie, the old friend with whom she had spent so many years since arriving in Portland.
In October 2002 the Zoo held a 50th birthday party for Coco. We didn’t know what month she was born. We weren’t even sure what year she was born, but it seemed right to celebrate her life. She was very old, and we didn’t know how much longer she would be with us. It might have been around that time that I started saying goodbye to Coco. Every time I was about to leave the Primate building, I would stop and say goodbye as though I might never see her again.
Coco kept getting older and more frail. One day several years ago she decided not to go out anymore. She must have figured she couldn’t handle the walk up the incline from the outdoor moat. Later she decided to stop climbing up to the nesting areas. She lived her last couple of years on the ground, bedding down on straw and blankets and hand-made quilts provided by staff and volunteers who were dedicated to making the old girl as comfortable as possible. I kept saying goodbye, hoping she would have a gentle end.
Her vision seemed to be failing. She had difficulty walking and grasping, but she was determined to keep going. She always seemed to have an appetite for the fresh produce and chow set out for her, and she seemed to enjoy all the treats the keepers used to cover up the taste of the pain medication she needed. She also seemed to be mellowing. When I came up to the window, instead of ignoring me she would acknowledge me with a nod and sometimes even get up and shuffle over to see me. And when I left, I made sure to say goodbye, Coco.
Then in late November, as the Zoo was preparing for the birth of a baby elephant, the call came. Coco had taken a turn for the worse. Do you want to come in tomorrow to say goodbye? One last time, I said goodbye, Coco.
NOTE: Coco is survived by daughters Delilah and Leah at the Oregon Zoo and by Josie at the Chattanooga Zoo and Rachel at the Kansas City Zoo. She also has four granddaughters and a great-granddaughter. Back in 2000 I traveled around the country and met all of Coco’s known offspring and their offspring who were alive at that time, but I was never able to uncover any information about her missing babies.