Nearly six years ago, lifelong friends Teresa and Rita, two chimpanzees used in research for the Air Force space program and subsequently in biomedical research, were the first residents to arrive at Chimp Haven and enjoy their newfound freedom in the forested habitat of the sanctuary. On January 7, 2011, Rita lost her best friend. Teresa, 46, suffered from a degenerative orthopedic condition.
Teresa was a favorite of other chimpanzees and staff alike. She was known for her strong personality. She was the peace maker when drama occurred in her social group. She and Rita were known for keeping the males of the group in line. She would not hesitate to cause a commotion if her care givers did not deliver her food at the moment she wanted it.
Yet for all her feistiness, Teresa had a gentle side that became all the more apparent four years ago, on January 8, 2007 when she walked out of the woods at Chimp Haven cradling a newborn baby chimpanzee. Tracy, as the baby was later named, was conceived when the vasectomy of Conan, one of the males in Teresa’s group, failed. Teresa, 42 at the time, was considered too old to have a baby, but clearly she defied the odds.
“Teresa was an excellent mother,” says Dr. Linda Brent, President of Chimp Haven. “She protected her baby and kept her safe; yet, she knew when to give her freedom.” Although Teresa kept Tracy close, she allowed other members of her group to help with childcare. Mason, 26, and Suzanna, 34, have been particularly close to Tracy. Their relationship with the four-year-old brings comfort to the Chimp Haven staff, according to behaviorist Amy Fultz: “Having Suzanna and Mason look after Tracy could provide her with comfort now that her mother is gone. She already sleeps with Mason at night. We see the two of them curled up together.”
Dr. Brent acknowledges that Tracy will face emotional stress as a result of the loss of her mother.
“Chimpanzees grieve the same way that humans do,” she explains. “For Tracy, time as well as support of the other chimpanzees will bring her through this. And, of course, the Chimp Haven staff will be close by to make sure Tracy is doing okay. We are also concerned about Rita, Teresa’s best friend. This is going to be a difficult period for her.”
The loss of any chimpanzee at Chimp Haven is heart breaking for the staff, but Teresa’s death is particularly difficult for Linda Brent and Amy Fultz. Both worked with her at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio. “We were thrilled when Teresa had the chance to follow us to Chimp Haven,” says Dr. Brent. “Teresa was born in Africa and knew how to climb trees. That was one of the first things she did when she came to Chimp Haven. Even when Tracy was a baby, Teresa would climb trees with Tracy clutched to her belly. She taught many of the chimpanzees she met at Chimp Haven how to climb and do all the other things a chimpanzee can do when they have freedom. She’s gone from Chimp Haven, but knowing Teresa, I imagine her spirit is soaring.”