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Arts & Culture

NC Zoo Says Goodbye To Ruthie, Oldest Chimpanzee

North Carolina Zoo, Chimpanzee, Heart Disease
NC Zoo
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The North Carolina Zoo has lost one of its oldest mammals.  Ruthie, a chimpanzee, was euthanized last week after suffering from heart disease. Ruthie was brought to the zoo in 1980 for its grand opening. She was one of the first chimps to make up the new "Kitera Forest" habitat. Staffers think she was about seven years old when she arrived at the zoo.

“Ruthie was here for almost 40 years. She came as a youngster," said Jennifer Ireland, the zoo's curater of mammals. "She was estimated at about 47, 48 years old when she died.”

Ireland's first job at the sprawling zoo in Asheboro was 20 years ago, as a chimpanzee keeper. Ruthie was a favorite.

“She was a character. She had this huge personality," said Ireland. "She was always really goofy and she was very interactive with her keeper staff which made her a favorite of her keeper staff. She was also super stubborn.”

It was Ruthie’s way or no way. Keepers say she washed and combed her spikey hair every day. Ireland says Ruthie was not a caring mother, but she was a great auntie to the younger chimps. Then staff noticed she was slowing down: arthritis, kidney problems, heart disease. Sounds quite human.

“It is so heart-breaking that we lost Ruthie, but we made the decision to euthanize her. We were very aware of her heart disease and how it was progressing," said Ireland.

They wanted her to die with dignity. Ireland says they presented Ruthie’s body to the Chimps.

“Most of them really wanted her to wake up, they were trying to poke her with sticks, or they were spitting on her, which was hard for us to watch," said Ireland. "But we completely understand why they were doing it, they didn’t understand why she wasn’t moving.”

The chimps in the zoo's "Kitera Forest" are a popular stop for visitors. Many of the chimps were brought to the zoo after being used in the entertainment industry or in science laboratories. One of the most famous chimps to live out his days at the North Carolina Zoo was Ham. Ham was the first chimpanzee to ride a rocket into outer space. He died at age 26.

Earlier this week, visitors with small children made their way to the chimps, stooping to their knees to wave and make eye contact. Part of the exhibit is a large, glass-like wall allowing humans to look in and the chimps to look out.

Ashley Roesch of Fuquay Varina sat quietly watching her daughters watch the chimps. She says she is glad the apes were able to find closure in Ruthie's death.

“They are so human-like, that they look at you, they will interact with you or they’ll just sit and take a nap," said Roesch. "They’re cute.”

There are now 15 chimps at the North Carolina Zoo. It's one of the largest troops of chimps in the country. Ruthie’s heart will be donated to the Great Ape Project, to further study and understand heart disease in aging chimps.

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