By Katy Muldoon, The Oregonian
November 30, 2012

Portland, Oregon, USA — The Oregon Zoo’s oldest animal and the chimpanzee estimated to be the nation’s second oldest was euthanized Friday, the same day the zoo welcomed a newborn elephant.

Coco, photographed early this year. (Photo: MICHAEL DURHAM/Oregon Zoo)

Coco, photographed early this year. (Photo: MICHAEL DURHAM/Oregon Zoo)

Coco, who apparently suffered a stroke, was born in the wild around 1952. She was approximately 60 and the years showed.

Soft gray whiskers wrapped her chin. Silver streaked her coal-black fur. Wrinkles rimmed deep-set eyes that, over the decades, watched millions of zoo visitors gaze back as she as climbed, played, dined, groomed, and nurtured her 17 offspring.

“She was a very feisty, spirited individual, which is what people loved about her,” said Jennifer Davis, curator of primates.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise that a zoo holding more than 2,000 animals experiences such a notable birth and death so close together.

Newborn November 30, 2012. (Photo: Portland zoo)

Newborn November 30, 2012. (Photo: Portland zoo)

Coco was imported to the United States through the pet trade, which was legal in the ’50s. Her owner donated her to the zoo in 1961.

Early this year, Eugene-based artist Jan Eliot featured Coco in her nationally syndicated comic strip, “Stone Soup.”

Coco had other brushes with fame — or, rather, with famous visitors. In 1976, President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, ambled through her exhibit and chatted with her keepers.

Three years later, so did renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, who was instrumental in helping the zoo garner support to build outdoor exhibit space big enough for all its chimps.

During that same era, Portland’s zoo held about half the breeding population of zoo-born chimps in the United States and Coco was part of a study that changed the way they’re raised.

Over 15 years, Portland-based research showed that chimps cared for longer by their mothers were significantly more likely, once they reached adolescence and adulthood, to exhibit natural breeding behaviors.

Nancy King-Hunt and Dave Thomas, the zoo’s former senior primate keeper, wrote a chapter on chimp rearing for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ chimpanzee Species Survival Plan. AZA-accredited zoos across North America adopted the new standards, keeping chimps with their mothers at least three to five years.

In Coco’s last years, keepers made many accommodations to keep her healthy and comfortable, adding ropes and metal shower bars to make it easier for her to climb to high perches. They warmed her nest area with a heater to ease discomfort in her arthritic joints. And they carefully watched, Thomas said, for signs that arthritis medicine had ceased to be enough to ease her pain.

About three years ago, Coco’s left arm grew severely weak, and in 2011, Thomas, his fellow keepers and the veterinarian discussed whether they should euthanize or give her more time. They decided she still appeared to enjoy life.

She’d grow excited and grunt softly when favorite keepers greeted her or delivered food. Her exhibit mates, two of whom were her daughters, treated her respectfully; one routinely groomed her.

This week, however, Coco’s condition deteriorated. She grew lethargic, had trouble grasping objects and seemed disoriented. She may have gone blind, too.

Veterinarian Mitch Finnegan said that for no apparent reason, she was alarm calling, which sounds something like a bark. He surmised that if she was blind, she might have been vocalizing out of fear, or it might have been a sign of dementia.

Again, he met with keepers. This time, they all agreed: Coco’s time had come.

The veterinary crew euthanized her shortly after 10:30 a.m.

Keepers gave the three remaining chimps an opportunity to see her lifeless body. “We felt it was an important part of their grieving process,” Davis said. “No one vocalized. No one displayed. It was very peaceful and quiet.”

It was a rough morning for the staff, Davis said. “There have been tears. But there’s the comfort in knowing you’ve done the right thing for her.”

Little Mama, Lion Country Safari.

Little Mama, Lion Country Safari.

With Coco gone, Little Mama remains by far the oldest chimp in the U.S. She lives at Lion Country Safari African Adventure in Loxahatchee, Fla. She’s believed to be in her mid 70s, based on an estimate Goodall made in the early 1970s after examining the chimp’s body and teeth.

An Ice Capades performer in her youth, Little Mama is arthritic. She’s lost some hearing and eyesight and she’s going bald, though she still has most of her teeth. All in all, says Terry Wolf, wildlife director, “she’s doing fine.”