A Mother’s Day Special

Meet La Vieille, Tchimpounga’s Surrogate Mother

This Mother’s Day, read Dr. Goodall’s reflections on her mother, Vanne, in the most recent issue of O Magazine.

La Vieille, one of the longtime residents at the Jane Goodall Institute’s (JGI) Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in the Republic of Congo, acts as a surrogate mother to six young orphan chimpanzees living at the sanctuary.  In fact, La Vieille and one little chimpanzee named Olombo are inseparable.  “Olombo is like her baby, everyone says this,” says Debby Cox, JGI’s consultant for Africa Programs.

La Vieille carries Olombo on her back, while the other infants hold onto her side and walk next to her when they are insecure.  If there is something that frightens the young chimps, such as thunder or a loud bang, the infants immediately run to La Vieille and cling to her. 

“Sometimes if we need to treat Olombo it can be difficult because La Vieille is so protective of her.  We just have to be patient and demonstrate that we do not want to hurt Olombo before offering treatment,” says Debby.

La Vieille’s Early Life

Photo: Steve Woodruff

Like the majority of the young orphan chimps at Tchimpounga, La Vieille has had a rough life.  Her early years are largely a mystery.  La Vieille was likely kept as a pet for most of her young life.  Similar to most chimps, as she reached adolescence, she likely became unmanageable and too big and powerful for her owners to keep. 

In 1974, La Vieille was abandoned at the Point Noire Zoo.  By the time she reached the zoo, she already exhibited some of the signs of a chimpanzee who has been separated from her family and kept isolated in a small cage for an extended period of time.  She was introverted and wary of humans.  However, unlike most former pet chimpanzees, La Vieille was able to live among a few other chimpanzees at the zoo. 

Unfortunately, conditions at the zoo were very poor.  Eventually the zoo was closed by the government and in 1992, La Vieille, at the age of 24, was transferred to Tchimpounga.

La Vieille’s Life at Tchimpounga

Photo: Fernando Turmo

At Tchimpounga, La Vieille lives in a more natural setting and is provided with the attention that only professional caretakers can give.  For her first 16 years at the sanctuary, she lived with Gregoire, Africa’s oldest-known chimpanzee, until he passed away in December 2008.  After La Vieille lost her close companion, caretakers at Tchimpounga carefully monitored her while she was integrated into the sanctuary’s young chimpanzee group.  At first, caretakers were unsure how La Vieille would like living with young chimps.  However, she surprised them by not only accepting the infants, but acting as their surrogate mother. 

La Vieille has a new lease on life and a new purpose as a surrogate mother.  She is helping Tchimpounga’s newest arrivals learn how to become normal, socially adjusted chimpanzees and reducing their dependence on human caregivers.  Says Debby, “It is such a great feeling, to see a chimpanzee who had lost so much of herself over the years due to the harsh and barren environment she was left in by the human hand, to see her come alive again because of the chimpanzee infants who need her support.”

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