Just as caregivers in a human retirement facility would, chimpanzee caregivers must experience intense experiences of loss and mourning. I knew realistically that chimpanzees in my care would not be immortal, but the first time I experienced a passing I was shocked at how moved I felt, even after knowing the chimpanzee only a short time. I remember quietly stepping back to allow the caregivers and veterinary staff that had been closer to him to be there for him in his last moments. I was saddened at my first experience with chimpanzee death yet reassured that he was surrounded by staff that had been supportive of him in his retirement years.
Even though it is painful for the staff to experience the loss of a chimp, it is often harder for us to watch the chimps’ reactions to the passing of their group mates. When Tracy’s mother Teresa passed away, we were all anxious to see how she would do in the following months. Fortunately, she had a large support network, both chimp and human, to see her through her experience of losing her mother. Although we cannot directly communicate with the chimps how they feel about a loss of a friend, it is often apparent in the behaviors and social dynamics of a group that they are experiencing a change. Around the time I was experiencing my own personal loss, one of our chimps lost a group mate he was very close with as well. I noticed that spending extra time with him, bringing him extra juice and treats and trying to engage him in interaction and play made me feel distracted in a positive way from my feelings of grief. Although he can’t tell me his feelings, I would like to think that my extra time with him lessened his mourning as well. In situations of loss it is so helpful to be supportive of each other, even in small gestures.
Although I am trying to accept that dying is a part of everyone’s journey, it does not get easier with each experience. The staff forms very strong bonds with the chimpanzees in our care and it is hard to lose someone, whether human or animal. However, I take solace in knowing that at Chimp Haven we give the chimps the best possible care in their retirement years leading up the inevitable transition of life’s end.