Popular denizen of ape house now recovered after stroke
The matriarch of Belfast Zoo’s chimpanzees will celebrate a very special birthday next week as she turns 50.
Lizzie is one of the oldest residents at Bellevue, and zoo manager Alyn Cairns has been by her side for the past 30 years since he started work as a junior keeper.
“I’m not supposed to have favourites, but I have a real soft spot for Lizzie,” he said.
“We have a great bond; I get a great reaction when I go and spend time with her.
“She’s our most intelligent ape and I always make a point of going to say hello to her — she’s a very chilled-out chimp.”
Born in Belfast in 1972 to parents Josie and Tommy, Lizzie moved to the £1m award-winning ape house when it was opened by renowned primatologist Jane Goodall in 1991.
A success story of the zoo’s breeding programme, she shares her home with six other chimps including daughters Kim and Lucy, and granddaughters Phoebe and Pixie. Alyn said Lizzie was a great leader of her troops, keeping them under control.
“Chimpanzees are very good at breaking things,” he explained.
“They have big teeth and four or five times the strength of a human, which makes them very dangerous.
“One time they broke a bar off the climbing apparatus and were throwing it around.
“I just had to point to it and Lizzie went over to them, gave them a look as if to say ‘come on guys’, and Flicka just handed it over.
“I gave Lizzie a treat (for that). Lettuce is her favourite thing to eat, but she was smart enough to know she deserved more, and wouldn’t take it.
“She ended up with a chocolate cookie.”
The strength of the animals means Alyn and Lizzie are often separated by a thick glass window when they sit down together, however a mesh area at the back allows them to get closer.
“She sticks her tongue through and loves to have it tickled,” he revealed.
“She also loves to count my fillings.”
Still recovering from a major stroke that left her numb down one side of her body in 2020, she is making good progress in her rehabilitation and has regained full mobility.
In recognition of their dedication in getting Lizzie back to her old self, the ape team in Belfast were honoured with a bronze award from the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums last year.
Meanwhile, Lizzie has been busy opening presents ahead of her big bash on Wednesday.
The birthday boxes are designed to stimulate her brain and are packed with her favourite lettuce and ripe bananas.
“There’s a lot of straw and smaller items packed into them like sunflower seeds and peanuts, which she’ll have to search for,” Alyn explained.
“She’s still a little bit slow — like most of us at 50 — but the gifts will help her.”
Lizzie’s biggest fan believes he is also her best friend.
“Although she can’t talk back, I feel she understands everything I say and I feel like I understand everything she says,” Alyn added.
“She has a calming presence and brings balance to the enclosure, which also contains alpha male Andy.”
After Wednesday all eyes will then turn to gorilla Deliah, who will soon celebrate her 60th birthday.