Senior citizens are common in Florida but one 74-year-old is in a class of her own: "Little Mama" is believed to be the oldest chimpanzee in captivity.
Born in Africa, she was one of the first residents at Lion Country Safari theme park in Loxahatchee, Florida, about 20 miles west of West Palm Beach.
"She came here when the park opened in 1967," said Lion Country Safari Wildlife Director Terry Wolf, who has been with the park just as long. Wolf said the park's owners bought her from a pet dealer.
"It was a whole different world then," explained Wolf. "Chimps in pet shops that were babies at that time could go for 10 grand."
Wolf doesn't know how much the park's owners paid for Little Mama, who was certainly no baby when she came to Lion Country Safari 45 years ago. The owners said that Little Mama was part of the Ice Capades, a traveling variety show that performed on ice across the United States, before she was acquired by the pet dealer, Wolf said.
"She was very sweet, very good with people," recalled Wolf. "Obviously somebody treated her nicely."
When world-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall visited the theme park in 1972, Wolf was anxious to introduce her to Little Mama.
At that time birth records for chimpanzees were not kept so Wolf did the next best thing: He asked the expert to estimate Little Mama's age. Goodall determined that the chimpanzee was between 30 and 35 years old. Splitting the difference, the park decided to put her age at 32.
Caretakers decided to mark Little Mama's birthday each Valentine's Day, since she has a sweet tooth: Cakes, pies and sodas are among her favorite foods.
She may be the oldest chimpanzee in captivity but she does not look her age when compared to other chimpanzees. Little Mama is petite, weighing about 100 pounds, and the only physical indication of her age are the gray hairs on her chin.
"Look at Cooper," said Wolf referring to the chimpanzee in the cage next to Little Mama. "Cooper probably looks to you, after seeing some other chimps, like he's 900 years old (but) he's 35." Cooper was born in Sierra Leone and spent his early years as a research test subject in New York state.
"Before he was 5 years old, he had probably 70 liver biopsies and they knocked him down with some horrific drugs," said Wolf. "Right now he's suffering with severe arthritis in his hips."
Although more than twice Cooper's age, Little Mama's last physical showed her in good health with clean lungs and a strong heart. Wolf believes that excellent care in the pet industry may be the reason she is healthy at her advanced age.
The life span for chimpanzees is 40 to 50 years in the wild and for those in captivity it is 50 to 60 years, according to the Center for Great Apes.
When asked about Little Mama's life expectancy Wolf responded, "I'd like to think she will be around longer than me."
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