Chimps deal with death like humans

Coming to terms with matriarch's death

MAHVASH ALI
Last updated 05:00 03/08/2012
Macale Ratana with Sally the chimp
CHRIS HILLOCK/FAIRFAX NZ
NEW ROLE: Macale Ratana with Sally. After the death of Hamilton Zoo’s oldest chimp, Fimi, a new leadership structure emerged.

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Chimpanzees at the Hamilton zoo have come to terms with the loss of their matriarch by behaving just like humans, according to zookeeper Catherine Nichols.

Fimi, the zoo's eldest alpha chimp, died from heart problems in April and a new leadership structure had emerged, said Ms Nichols, the primary caretaker of the chimpanzee enclosure.

Soon after Fimi died, 46-year-old female chimp Sally, stepped in to become a mother figure to Fimi's orphaned 26-year-old daughter, Sanda, she said.

Ms Nichols added that after a period of mourning, the primates became settled enough for the zoo to introduce them into a communal setting for the first time in more than a year.

“We had to separate the males and females when Fimi was alive because Luka (a younger male chimp) wanted to assert his dominance and Fimi was quite dominant herself. But since she's gone now we have put them together again,” Ms Nichols said.

Animal behaviourist Dr Melanie Vivian said chimpanzees always mourned when there was a death in their community.

“Different chimps have different personalities, but they need time to grieve.

“They are just like us, death affects them deeply,” Dr Vivian said.

Now the group was over the grieving process, two male chimps were vying for Sanda's interest - Luka and his older brother Lucifer.

“The three of them are good mates, but Sanda seems to prefer Lucifer,” Ms Nichols said.

This was because Sanda was not very “excited” about Luka's overwhelming attachment to his mother, Lucy, and seemed to be favouring Lucifer as he was not such a mummy's boy, she said.

Ms Nichols added that it was possible that Lucifer, who had always suffered from a lack of confidence, would come out of his shell with Sanda's support and even challenge his brother's authority. Dr Vivian agreed.

“In chimp communities, the less confident chimp would require support to take a leadership role.

“But this flux and change in power should not be seen as a negative thing. It is healthy; it ensures the most fit chimp leads.”

This behaviour, she said, was not too different from humans.

Hamilton Zoo has five chimps.

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- Waikato Times

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