Chimp killed at Tulsa Zoo in fight over female chimpanzee

Mar 28, 2012

The Tulsa Zoo is mourning the loss of one of its chimpanzees, “Alvin”.  An altercation broke out Saturday between the 20-year-old Alvin and the other chimpanzees in the group. The male chimp was separated from the group and was immediately examined visually and treated by the veterinary staff. The incident occurred during zoo hours and once Alvin was safely isolated, the interior exhibit was closed to the public.

Alvin had several severe lacerations to his hands, feet and other defensive wounds.  He was still responsive to his keeper staff and was eating and drinking normally.  He took the antibiotics and pain relievers offered to him in fruit juices.

Once it was determined the chimp had stabilized and could safely undergo anesthesia, zoo veterinary staff did a full examination Monday. The chimp was treated for injuries to his hands, feet and abdominal areas and remained stable while under anesthesia. Afterward, he was given medication for pain and was kept under close observation.

Early Tuesday morning, Alvin appeared to be sleeping and was breathing normally.  Later in the morning, Alvin stopped breathing and zoo staff immediately administered CPR and cardiac rescue medications.  Alvin did not respond to resuscitation efforts and died.  Results from the necropsy show that the chimp had heart disease and evidence of some kidney function impairment.  Cardiac disease is one of the leading causes of mortality for adult and geriatric aged chimpanzees. 

“We were surprised that cardiac lesions were present as Alvin would only be considered middle aged for a chimpanzee,” said Dr. Backues, Tulsa Zoo veterinarian.

“The stress of the events and his injuries were just too much,” said Backues, “his injuries were severe, but survivable, had it not been for his heart condition.”

The cause of the altercation has been attributed to a female chimp that had recently come into estrus – or began a normal ovulation cycle -- which created a shift in the delicate chimpanzee social dynamic. Recently, the Tulsa Zoo was given approval by the Association of Zoos & Aquarium’s Species Survival Plan, or SSP, for Alvin to breed with Jodi, mother to five-year-old female chimp Vindi. This was the first normal cycle for Jodi since she gave birth to Vindi five years ago.

The social and hierarchical interactions among chimpanzees are very dramatic and at times can be quite volatile, especially when competition arises. When a female chimpanzee comes into estrus, there are many ways she displays her fertility and this is

noticed by all of the chimps in the group, particularly the males. A certain amount of aggressive behavior is normal among chimpanzees, especially in breeding scenarios, but not to this extent.

“Chimpanzees are very powerful animals that at times can demonstrate compassionate and nurturing behaviors and at other times can be very aggressive.” said Pat Murphy, primate curator, “These behaviors are instinctual and are observed in both wild and zoo populations.”

A variety of husbandry practices are used to minimize conflict and possible aggression. These include training the chimps to have specific individual feeding stations to alleviate competition for food. Also, the exhibit is designed to prevent chimpanzees from being cornered or trapped during a potential conflict. Alvin was able to seek refuge using an access door that led him from the outdoor exhibit to an indoor area.

 “We’ve been very fortunate to have such a cooperative, amicable group of chimpanzees,” said Murphy, “so this was a really unexpected occurence. The loss of Alvin is really sad for the entire zoo.”

The zoo has two males, 25-year-old Morris and Alvin’s son, four-year-old Bernsen.  The remaining chimpanzees include females Jodi, Susie, Hope and Alvin’s daughter, Vindi. 

“This is a tragic loss, but is also a powerful reminder that these are indeed wild animals with wild instincts,” said Dr. Backues, “Though it may seem brutal, this type of behavior is still part of a chimpanzee’s nature, even in a zoo environment.”

Alvin will be remembered as a good-natured, nurturing father in the chimpanzee group who spent his whole life at the Tulsa Zoo. He will be missed by both zoo staff and guests.