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NGM: The Story Behind Our Photo of Grieving Chimps

Posted by kayms99 on October 29, 2009

6a00e00982269188330120a6288328970b-500wiThe November issue of National Geographic magazine features a moving photograph of chimpanzees watching as one of their own is wheeled to her burial. Since it was published, the picture and story have gone viral, turning up on websites and TV shows and in newspapers around the world. For readers who’d like to know more, here’s what I learned as I interviewed the photographer, Monica Szczupider.

On September 23, 2008, Dorothy, a female chimpanzee in her late 40s, died of congestive heart failure. A maternal and beloved figure, Dorothy had spent eight years at Cameroon’s Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center, which houses and rehabilitates chimps victimized by habitat loss and the illegal African bushmeat trade. 

After a hunter killed her mother, Dorothy was sold as a “mascot” to an amusement park in Cameroon. For the next 25 years she was tethered to the ground by a chain around her neck, taunted, teased, and taught to drink beer and smoke cigarettes for sport. In May 2000 Dorothy—obese from poor diet and lack of exercise—was rescued and relocated along with ten other primates. As her health improved, her deep kindness surfaced. She mothered an orphaned chimp named Bouboule and became a close friend to many others, including Jacky, the group’s alpha male, and Nama, another amusement-park refugee.

Szczupider, who had been a volunteer at the center, told me: “Her presence, and loss, was palpable, and resonated throughout the group. The management at Sanaga-Yong opted to let Dorothy’s chimpanzee family witness her burial, so that perhaps they would understand, in their own capacity, that Dorothy would not return. Some chimps displayed aggression while others barked in frustration. But perhaps the most stunning reaction was a recurring, almost tangible silence. If one knows chimpanzees, then one knows that [they] are not [usually] silent creatures.”

Sanaga-Yong was founded in 1999 by veterinarian Sheri Speede (pictured at right, cradling Dorothy’s head; at left is center employee Assou Felix). Operated by IDA-Africa, an NGO, it’s home to 62 chimps who reside in spacious, forested enclosures.

Szczupider submitted the photograph to Your Shot, a magazine feature that encourages readers to send in pictures they’ve taken. The best are published on the website and in the magazine.

—Jeremy Berlin


3 Responses to “NGM: The Story Behind Our Photo of Grieving Chimps”

  1. kay~ms said

    I saw this on Fox News today. Notice how some of the chimps even have their arms around each other.


  2. dorian said

    that’s so touching. it’s evident the chimps were grieving. just like humans when a loved one dies, they each had different reactions – “Some chimps displayed aggression while others barked in frustration. But perhaps the most stunning reaction was a recurring, almost tangible silence. If one knows chimpanzees, then one knows that [they] are not [usually] silent creatures.” it’s a good thing dorothy was rescued from an abusive existence and had a happy life before her death.
    good one, kay!


  3. kay~ms said

    Thanks Dorian..

    I also wanted to add this little story that was on the National Geographic blog..

    Larry Johnson
    Oct 28, 2009 9AM # This is a lovely story. And I must tell you I witnessed a similar event with a pack of squirrels once, without really realizing the deeper implications. I saw this pack of squirrels near a squirrel that had apparently just been hit by a car. The squirrels slowly gathered in a circle around the dead squirrel, standing on their back legs and facing inwards silently. One of the squirrels then moved in close, got down low, and looked intently into the face of the dead squirrel. Then this squirrel got up, sort of straddled the dead squirrel, and started tugging on the dead squirrel’s shoulder as if trying to revive it. This was fruitless of course and, after a few minutes, the pack of squirrels moved on. What was striking was that they moved on slowly, with several individual squirrels stopping to turn around and look back at the dead squirrel as they moved away. This could all have been nothing but a grieving ceremony.


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