Posted on: October 23, 2017 at 3:24 pm
Last updated: June 20, 2018 at 10:32 am

With faces like ours and expressions to match our own, it’s hard not to view chimpanzees as our friends. Chimps are the closest living animal to us humans, and we’ve learned a lot about ourselves through observing them. With such close relations, it’s inevitable that a deep bond will form. So, when a 59-year-old chimpanzee was on her deathbed and an old zoologist friend stopped in to say goodbye, she was all smiles during her final moments on Earth.

The ‘Mama’ of the Group


At age 59, Mama was not a young chimp. She lived a full life as the dominant matriarch of her chimp colony at the Royal Burgers’ Zoo in Arnhem, Netherlands. According to her caregivers, Mama was a force to be reckoned with, stealing the hearts of everyone she met.

But, with each storm, there’s a calm to follow. Chimpanzees can live up to 50-60 years in captivity, and Mama was nearing her end. She spent her final days in bed, refusing food or drink until an unexpected friend stopped in to say his goodbyes.


Professor Jan Van Hooff was the co-founder of Mama’s colony, the first ever to be raised in a zoo, and had known her since 1972.

At first, Mama was slow to recognize her friend, but Van Hooff’s soft words and fond pats brought Mama through her daze, and she finally saw her old friend. Her response in this video speaks louder than any words.

Van Hooff’s visit happened just at the right time, as Mama died one week after the emotional reunion.

Mama was born in the wild around 1957 and brought to the Netherlands in 1971. Prior to her death, she was the oldest chimpanzee in captivity in the Netherlands.

“Mama was the ‘grand lady’ of the chimpanzee colony,” behavioral scientist Frans de Waal told the NL Times. “She had an exceptionally strong and dominant personality so that no man who wanted to come to power could do so around her.”[1]

“She also brought consolation when there were tensions and mediated conflicts,” de Waal continued. “She will be sorely missed.”[1]

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The Secret Lives of Chimpanzees

It is not unusual that Mama and Van Hooff formed such a close bond. Chimpanzees in the wild live in a large community that includes all individuals (sometimes up to a few hundred) that all interact with each other regularly. Within this large group are smaller subgroups. These subgroups are fluid and can change members frequently[2].

In chimp-world, there is a distinct dominance hierarchy, with the males dominating over the females[2]. We know from the words of her caretakers that Mama was not submitting to any male, human or chimp, which is perhaps what made her relationship with Van Hooff so special.

When living in captivity, the lives of the chimpanzees are quite different than in the wild, but their core social values remain the same. In captivity, it’s still possible, and probable, for chimpanzees to form social ties to the creatures that it spends its day with, and that includes humans.


Teaching Your Kids to Respect Animals

There is much controversy around zoos, relating both to the safe and fair treatment of the animals and the educational experience of the people attending. There are some cases, like that of Mama and her caretaker, that is very positive, and then there are stories of animal rights atrocities within the zoo systems. In addition to that, animals in captivity react to their surroundings, and therefore they do not act in the same way that they would while in the wild, making it impossible for the public to learn about their true nature.

A study published in the academic journal Conservation Biology found that of over 2,800 students surveyed after attending the London Zoo, the majority demonstrated no positive learning outcomes at all. In fact, many children showed a negative learning outcome[3].

Whatever your stance is regarding zoos, there are other ways in which to educate yourself and your children about the animals of this world that don’t involve taking advantage of the creatures themselves.


With the advances that have been happening in modern video, there is an abundance of amazing animal content that can teach your child about animals all over the world. Watch television programs, movies, and videos on the internet with your child to show them how these animals act in their natural habitat.

Visit an Animal Sanctuary


Animal sanctuaries are places that rescued animals are housed in order to heal and thrive. Many of these animals have been rescued from terrible situations, and they are unable to survive in the wild on their own because of it. Where many zoo’s focus on the display of animals, sanctuaries focus mainly on conservation and education.

Get Outside!

There is wildlife in your own backyard, regardless of where you live in the world. You can introduce your child to the nature around it, and show them how to be respectful to the creatures who live there. And, as an added bonus, you and your child will be getting some extra outdoor time away from the computer games.

Animal conservation has never been more important. The relationship between Mama and her caretaker Jan Van Hooff shows just how bonded we are to the creatures of this planet. We are all here together, and we need to look out for one another and help each other through difficult times. Mama and Van Hooff can be our example, that with some love we can all live peacefully together.


[1] Kim Davis. (October 12, 2017). Age 59 Chimp Named “Mama: Is so SickShe Refused to Eat. But Watch when She Recognized Old Friend. Retrieved on October 23, 2017 from

[2] Kristina Cawthon Lang. (April 13, 2006). Chimpanzee. Retrieved on October 23, 2017 from

[3] Eric Jensen. (March 29, 2014). Evaluating Children’s Conservation Biology Learning at the Zoo. Retrieved on October 23, 2017 from

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