PORTLAND, Ore. – The Oregon Zoo is mourning the loss of one of its elderly chimpanzees.
The zoo sent out the following press release Monday:
The Oregon Zoo said goodbye to one of its oldest and most beloved residents today. Leah, a chimpanzee who was known for her sweet demeanor, and who helped launch a decades-long friendship with renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, passed away in her sleep last night, according to care staff.
At 47, Leah was one of the oldest animals at the zoo but still considered the “baby” of Portland’s very elderly chimp group. She is survived by her big sister Delilah, who turns 49 next month; male chimp Jackson, 50; and the troop leader Chloe, 53.
Wild chimpanzees typically live around 33 years, and the median life expectancy in zoos is 41.7 years for female chimps, according to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The zoo participates in AZA’s Species Survival Plan for chimpanzees, which are nearing extinction in many of their range countries.
“This is a tough loss for the entire zoo, but especially for her care staff,” said Dr. Carlos Sanchez, the zoo’s lead veterinarian. “I hope knowing that we did everything we could for Leah, and that she passed away peacefully in her sleep, is a comfort. Her remarkable age says a lot about the great care she’s received over the years.”
Leah was born May 15, 1974, at the Oregon Zoo, then known as the Portland Zoological Gardens. Around that time, the zoo’s pioneering work with chimpanzees drew the attention of renowned conservationist Jane Goodall, who visited regularly, getting to know Leah and the others.
Last fall, as the group moved into their new Primate Forest home, keepers reflected on Portland’s decades-long connection to Dr. Goodall, and looked ahead to a new era of care for chimpanzees and other primates.
“Back during Leah’s first years, Dr. Goodall helped the zoo find funding for a big outdoor area to house all the chimps,” keeper Colleen Reed said. “Primate Forest is a natural outgrowth of those early developments, and we’re so grateful she got to experience it in her lifetime.”
Caregivers recalled Leah’s sweet but reserved personality.
“She was reserved at first, but once she opened up she was very sweet and playful,” Reed recalled. “I remember one of first times she opened up with me. It was in the summer and she was rolling around on her back in a huge nest that she’d made. She was smiling and reaching out to play.”
“Leah came out of her shell a little more in her golden years, and she would often initiate play with Chloe,” added senior keeper Asaba Mukobi. “Her laughter was infectious — both for the other chimpanzees and for her care staff.”
Being the youngest of the troop, Leah would typically follow along with what the others were doing, according to keepers, and rarely be the one to “go first.” That was not the case, though, when the zoo opened Primate Forest last year.
“Leah was the first one into the new space,” Reed said. “Everyone seemed very confident and relaxed. We heard lots of happy vocalizations, and they appeared to feel right at home.”
As part of the Metro family, the Oregon Zoo helps make greater Portland a great place to call home. Committed to conservation, the zoo is working to save endangered California condors, northwestern pond turtles, Oregon silverspot and Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies, and northern leopard frogs. To learn more, visit oregonzoo.org/recovery.
Support from the Oregon Zoo Foundation enhances and expands the zoo’s efforts in conservation, education and animal welfare. Members, donors and corporate and foundation partners help the zoo make a difference across the region and around the world. To contribute, go to oregonzoo.org/donate.
To plan your trip, go to oregonzoo.org/visit. For more information on getting to the zoo, visit Explore Washington Park.
© 2023 KOBI-TV NBC5. All rights reserved unless otherwise stated.