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Dorothy’s Photo

October 31st, 2009 by Christy Griffin

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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.”