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Dorothy’s Photo

October 31st, 2009 by Christy Griffin

It is with rapt fascination that a photograph of a deceased chimpanzee being visibly mourned by dozens of chimpanzees looking on as the body is being wheeled for burial has transfixed viewers across the internet, on television, and in countless publications, with its soul-piercing sadness. The image of the matriarch Dorothy, lying still amid orphaned chimpanzees at Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center, in Cameroon, Africa, is something wondrous to behold. 

The Sanaga-Yong Center, which provides sanctuary for nearly 70 orphans, victims of the illegal bushmeat trade, is a project of IDA Africa, the creation of In Defense of Animals’ Dr. Sheri Speede. who first traveled to the country to volunteer her veterinary skills. She made friends with three chimpanzees, Becky, Jacky, and Pepe—who had suffered decades in small cages at a resort hotel and, in 1999, became the first adult chimpanzees who had been rescued in Cameroon. In 2000, IDA Africa organized a forced confiscation of adult chimpanzees Dorothy and Nama, and eight monkeys, the first armed confiscation of illegally held primates in Cameroon.

The striking image by Sanaga-Yong volunteer Monica Szczupider that first appeared in the November, 2009, issue of National Geographic captures exquisitely the personal and ideal sharing of the fate among nonhumans brought together by a common purpose and who form extraordinary bonds of friendship. The photo subsequently appeared on “Inside edition,” “ABC News,” the New York Post, London Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and a variety of other newspapers and Web sites around the world.

The writer Susan Sontag in On photography wrote that “photographs do not explain; they acknowledge.” When looking at the photo, one immediately feels the magnitude and closeness of the family of chimpanzees and seeing their view of things. In all the marvel of their chimpanzee nature and sophisticated minds, our closest genetic kin possess their own dialects, cultures, they teach their young, use tools, and are self-aware, conscious of themselves and their futures. And as evident in the photo, they feel sorrow and mourn the deaths of loved ones.

Orphaned by a hunter who killed her mother, Dorothy was sold as a “mascot” to an amusement park-hotel, where she was chained by her neck.  Somewhere between 25 and 40 dark years, she endured the endless mocking and jeering of visitors to the park, as she was taught to drink beer and beg for cigarettes to the great delight of onlookers. People laughed mercilessly at Dorothy, but no one came near enough to touch her. She was labeled vicious by the hotel staff. Once at the sanctuary, she made fast friends with many of the chimpanzees, even experiencing mother love by adopting a baby orphan named Bouboule, whom she adored until the end of her life. Dorothy and Nama, another amusement part refugee and soul mate, lived in alpha male Jacky’s group of 27 chimpanzees. Dorothy was at the center of it all—a beloved mother figure to many of the younger chimpanzees—a luminous presence everyone at Sanaga-Yong felt like a nimbus.

When Dorothy passed away, on September 22, 2008, from what appeared to be heart failure, Dr. Speede said “many people from the villages, including the high chief of our seven villages, came to pay their respects. No one seemed to wonder for a second whether a funeral service was appropriate for a chimpanzee. They walked to the camp from their villages after learning of Dorothy’s death, without being invited.

“We buried Dorothy beside the enclosure where she lived and beside the tomb of her friend Becky. All the chimpanzees in her family came to watch and mourn with us. When we brought her to the gravesite, they asked to see her again, so I took her body close for them to see her a final time. None of them left until the burial was finished.”

12 Responses to “Dorothy’s Photo”

  1. February 27, 2012 at 4:00 am, Perrine Odier said:

    Hi everybody,

    We have a french version of IDA-AFRICA with updates every week. You can follow us on facebook or twitter “In defense of Animals-Africa” … and every 2 months there is an e-news on

    Thank you for your support.

  2. December 21, 2009 at 1:32 am, wheyp.roteinsideeffects said:

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  3. December 20, 2009 at 5:47 pm, forexst_ra_tegies said:

    I am definitely bookmarking this page and sharing it with my friends.
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  4. November 23, 2009 at 6:09 am, Nicole said:

    thank you for sharing such an emotionally moving story. the image of dorothy being mourned by her chimpanzee community is truly worth ” a thousand words”, and tears. the story behind the photo is heart breaking and heart warming; a powerful reminder that we are all connected. i hope to see more photos from this amazing community of chimpanzees and the people who care.

  5. November 16, 2009 at 2:12 pm, Ev said:

    What a wonderful story and picture, I cried through the entire article. I can’t begin to imagine the joy she felt in her new sanctuary after spending 25-40 years at the heartless amusement park/hotel. How people could jeer and poke fun at her while having a chain locked around her neck is incomprehensible. Thank-you so much for sharing and for rescuing animals in need. Unfortunately, there are so many more to go…….

  6. November 16, 2009 at 1:27 am, Alice Wright said:

    I would like to send my profound thanks to IDA for this photo highlighting an extraordinary display of emotion by these amazing souls! That all animals have feelings on a very high level should never again be questioned.

    I am wondering how an individual can help such orphaned chimpanzees?

  7. November 12, 2009 at 8:16 am, Lori Meitzen said:

    I have always known how deeply our animal friends mourn and grieve…their emotions are really no different from that of humans and are felt very strongly. I have personally witnessed animals mourning and it is totally heartbreaking to see. I have also met many humans who do not believe animals have the same capabilities and emotions of humans and hope they will now have a different opinion and open their hearts to our animal friends.
    I ache to hold and console all these precious animals and take away their inner and physical pain. And I applaud all those who have a heart, compassion and understanding for our animal friends, those who help make their world a better place.
    May God bless and protect the animals of the world. May they only know LOVE and COMPASSION from us humans and may we hold them close to our hearts and bring them comfort in their time of need.

  8. November 12, 2009 at 7:51 am, Mary Alice Pollard, Cornwalls Voice for Animals said:

    If there was any doubt in anyone’s minds that animals feel pain both mentally and physically – this photo should put of that doubt to rest any doubt. Thank you for sharing this sad story, I hope it causes people to consider and think about just what our animals feel day to day in their lives !

  9. November 12, 2009 at 7:48 am, LJ Schneider said:

    I am new to your organization and to the world of animal rights and advocacy. Thank you for these wonderful pieces.

    Your description of Dorothy’s passing makes me wonder about the term “humanness” which we Homo sapiens use to acknowledge something immediate and vital in one another. “Humanness” is too narrow for all of creation and a species-crossing, unifying term is needed. Clearly the other chimpanzees, the villagers, internet viewers — but NOT the concessionaires and their guests –experienced something in Dorothy that deeply stirred them. What would you call it?

    Thanks again.

  10. November 11, 2009 at 12:39 pm, Freddy Konings said:

    So touching, but also so beautiful. People should learn from animals. People should respect and help all animals and learn from them.
    Good job IDA.
    Freddy Konings

  11. November 09, 2009 at 10:41 pm, David said:

    There was never any doubt in my mind! This story was so sad and touching!!!!!!
    Thank you for sharing!!!! I hope more people will realize just how special these animals are!!!!

    David Weil

  12. November 03, 2009 at 12:43 am, Robin Bernstein said:

    Beautiful piece and such amazing animals. Please keep us updated about IDA-Africa and chimpanzees in general.