In Memoriam: Gregoire, 1942-2008
One of the animal world's most incredible stories of resilience and happy endings came to a quiet close yesterday: Gregoire, Africa's oldest known chimpanzee and a national hero in the Republic of Congo, died in his sleep.
Caretakers found Gregoire dead in his bed of eucalyptus leaves yesterday morning at JGI's Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center, a sanctuary for orphaned chimpanzees, in the Republic of Congo. In notifying JGI staff members and volunteers around the world, Dr. Goodall's assistant Mary Lewis wrote: "We have some sad news from the Congo today. Early this morning our old friend Gregoire was found dead in his room. It appears that he died naturally in his sleep and he will be buried at the sanctuary which gave him a safe haven in his latter years."
As news of Gregoire's death circulated yesterday, messages of condolence and sympathy made their way to Jane and JGI from around the world.
Gregoire was nowhere better known than in Congo. "Everyone knew Gregoire," says Lisa Pharoah, JGI's West and Central Africa Program Manager. "Children…adults…they all had stories about him. You could tell people you worked for JGI and maybe you would get a reaction. But tell people you work with Gregoire? They'd get so excited: "Oh, Gregoire!!"
"Really a chimpanzee?"
Gregoire became famous at the Brazzaville Zoo, where he was brought as a baby – perhaps one or two years old. The year? 1944. When Dr. Goodall met him in 1990, after he'd been on display alone in his cage for decades, he was barely recognizable as a chimpanzee. In her book 40 Years at Gombe, she wrote:
"I gazed at this strange being, alone in his bleak cement-floored cage. His pale, almost hairless skin was stretched tightly over his emaciated body so that every bone could be seen. His eyes were dull as he reached out with a thin, bony hand for a proffered morsel of food. Was this really a chimpanzee? . . . Above his cage was a sign that read ‘Shimpanse 1944.'
Jane intervened on Gregoire's behalf, arranging for a caretaker to look after him and give him a healthier diet. In 1996 Gregoire was introduced to a young male chimp and an infant female. The stubborn spirit that had kept Gregoire alive during decades of lonely confinement was still intact — he played like a child with the youngsters.
In 1997, the intermittent civil war in Congo flared up. The zoo was only a half-mile from the airport and became the center of fierce fighting. Every time a shell exploded, Gregoire dove under his wooden sleeping shelf, scraping his back raw.
The chimpanzees were airlifted to Pointe Noire from whence they were brought to Tchimpounga. It took days for Gregoire to calm down after the weeks of war and then transport by military helicopter. But eventually he adjusted to his new surroundings, which included a special garden made for him and La Vieille, a female rescued from the Pointe Noire Zoo.
Games and a girlfriend
This second part of Gregoire's life was peaceful and full of social opportunities. At night he shared his nest with his favorite female, Clara, in a dormitory room that also housed La Vieille and Stephanie. During the day he enjoyed playing games of chase with caretakers and being tickled. Another favorite game involved sticking out his leg for people to grab. He also loved grooming people (heads, arms and ears, mostly), sitting and watching the activity around him, and eating treats, especially balls of sticky rice.
Gregoire was memorable to human observers not only for his unusual appearance – tall and withered with many missing or half-missing teeth, but also for his mellow disposition. In one recent video about Tchimpounga, Gregoire is shown sitting and watching with quiet interest as veterinarian Rebeca Atencia clips his toenails.
"He was the most gentle soul," says Pharoah.
Every year Gregoire had a birthday party. In 2004, then-Sanctuary Manager Ken Cameron wrote about the special day:
"It was a joyful occasion and we laughed a lot, particularly when Jane gave Gregoire his surprise – a box full of fruits that he opened with great enthusiasm but with all the care of the wisest and oldest chimp in Africa. First, he looked at the blue wrapping topped with pink bougainvillea flowers. Then, very slowly he made a tiny little hole to look through. When he saw the hidden oranges, he started screaming in joy and grabbed one that he held and showed to the crowd, full of happiness and pride. Then he approached all his friends, proudly showing the treasure, which he kept aside for later.
Gregoire knew well that it was his party; he did not get troubled by the workers, the video cameras, kids and visitors looking at him and taking pictures. Quite the opposite – he loved it! He knew he was the star."
Gregoire was known beyond the boundaries of Congo, thanks to media attention. Not only was he on the cover of National Geographic magazine in 1995, he also was featured in a BBC special and in an Animal Planet film Jane Goodall's Return to Gombe.
JGI could not have asked for a better ambassador for our efforts to protect chimpanzees, end the illegal commercial bushmeat trade, and promote sustainable livelihoods in Africa.