It came as a surprise when 40-year-old chimpanzee Lizzie turned out to be pregnant — despite having been written off as probably past the age of breeding.
But it was true. Lizzie was doing her bit to extend a protected species by having the first baby chimp to be born at the Belfast Zoo in 15 years —to the surprise of the keepers.
The chimps at the zoo are part of a global breeding programme, managed by a studbook keeper who provides breeding recommendations.
The zoo was given a recommendation not to breed for a number of years, so the arrival of Lucy on St Patrick’s Day came as a special surprise.
“This was not entirely planned but it’s wonderful to see 40-year-old Lizzie, potentially past the age of breeding, carrying a baby,” manager Mark Challis said. “We didn’t know about it until about halfway through her pregnancy, so we were quite taken aback.”
Lizzie gave birth overnight in her enclosure, left to get on with it by the keepers.
“Lizzie is an experienced mother, so we knew she’d be ok. They tend to give birth overnight so we left her to it,” Mr Challis said.
“There was an early evening check and there Lucy was the following morning.”
In the days after her arrival, Lucy was watched carefully by the keepers to make sure there were no problems or veterinary issues to be addressed. She’s now five weeks old and thriving.
It’s fascinating to watch for the similarities between Lizzie’s maternal behaviour and that of humans, Mr Challis said.
“She shows such thorough maternal care. Lucy is still being carried and is 100% dependent on Lizzie,” he said.
“At the moment that means milk but, in time, she will be showing her the correct foods to eat, how to behave and she’ll be helping her to walk.
“If you watch for any length of time it’s easy to start reading human and other ape behaviours into it.
“You could spend hours watching the group interact.
“They are so intrigued — they haven’t seen a baby in their group for 15 years.”
Chimpanzees originate from western central Africa, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says they are facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. Populations have declined by more than 66% in the last 30 years. Throughout 2011, Belfast Zoo fundraised for the EAZA ape campaign and raised almost £20,000 for conservation projects in the wild.
You can support the care of Belfast Zoo’s chimpanzees by taking part in the animal adoption scheme. Find out more at www.belfastzoo.co.uk/adoption, email firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 028 9077 6277, extension 229.