Watch The Moment A Dying Chimpanzee Recognizes An Old Friend

Oct 24, 2017

Animal videos are shared online nowadays at a pace that can be overwhelming.

Once in a while, though, a video offers a unique and unforgettable message.

Such is the case with a short video of the chimpanzee named Mama, curled up in her enclosure at the Royal Burgers' Zoo in Arnhem, Holland. Shot in 2016 — but only now coming into wide circulation (I saw it for the first time two weeks ago) — the film shows an elderly ape too weak to eat or drink.

At age 59, Mama's life is nearing an end.

To my eyes, Mama looks weak but peaceful, tended to by her human caretakers; somehow we know she is dwelling in her own mental world.

Then, something quite wonderful happens to stir Mama's awareness and her spirit.

Before I explain more, please do watch the short clip for yourself:

Mama's memory of, and love for, Jan van Hooff, renowned biologist and the founder of the zoo's chimpanzee colony — whom she had known since 1972 but not recently seen — brought tears to my eyes.

Mama's whole being lights up in recognition of a dear friend. Through a constellation of factors — Mama's facial expression and gaze, her vocalizations, her arm embrace of van Hooff and her patting behavior of him — we witness her display of an emotion the world of science for too long was reluctant to assign to animals: love.

As I watched, I thought about what was happening to this ape at the end of her life and I also experienced powerful mental images of my own mother, who two years ago at age 88 entered hospice care and soon after quietly died.

This is what knowledge of animals' thinking and feeling behavior does for us, I think — it makes us realize explicitly how much we share.

Mama died a week after van Hooff's encounter with her.

Mama was a vibrant figure, even though I never met her. She was quite special to many of us in the fields of primate behavior, anthropology and zoology — in fact, thanks to the research and writing of van Hooff's first Ph.D. student, the now-eminent primatologist Frans de Waal (I have written at 13.7 about de Waal before.)

Thirty-five years ago, de Waal published his groundbreaking book Chimpanzee Politics about the social strivings and power alliances among the Arhem chimpanzees. He described Mama as the oldest female in the colony even then.

But it wasn't her age that made Mama famous in primate-behavior circles, it was her acute awareness of, and ability to, intercede effectively in male political struggles.

"Many a time I have seen a major conflict between two males end up in her arms," de Waal writes in the book. "Instead of resorting to physical violence at the climax of their confrontation, the rivals run to Mama, screaming loudly."

How does Mama bring about detente? Through an example centered on a male named Nikkie who had recently risen to alpha position in the colony and was prone to rather violent rule, de Waal describes Mama's method of diplomacy:

"The most convincing demonstration of her reconciliatory role came on an occasion when the whole group had turned on Nikkie...This time, all of the apes, including Mama, had given chase screaming loudly and barking. In the end, the usually so impressive Nikkie sat high up in a tree, alone, panic-stricken and screaming. Every line of escape was cut off. Each time he wanted to come down, some of the others chased him back. After about a quarter of an hour, the situation changed. Mama slowly climbed into the tree, touched Nikkie and kissed him. Then she climbed down again with Nikkie following close at heel. Now that Mama was bringing him with her, nobody resisted anymore. Nikkie, obviously still nervous, made it up with his opponents."

Mama was born in the wild (estimated year 1957) and confined first to a zoo in Germany then at the Arnhem colony. By all accounts I have read, she enjoyed a fulfilling social life at Arnhem, right at the center of ever-changing chimpanzee dynamics.

Sixty years after Mama's capture in Africa, we're in a different era.

I have been outspoken about a need to rethink confining animals to zoos.

Mama herself is a testament to the complexity of animal thinking and feeling, and I believe this video honors her life beautifully.


Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's new book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.