As one of the first animals to arrive at the Zoo, Duchess, the matriarch of our orangutan family, charmed the hearts of many the minute she arrived. She was born in the jungles of Borneo where she was orphaned at a very young age. When Duchess came to Phoenix in 1962, it was determined that she was around 2 years old. She arrived with Ben, her soon-to-be mate, and made a life together here. Duchess and Ben became very familiar with the human world when they were young. Initially, they lived in various spaces around the Zoo, as well as in homes of early donors of the Zoo, mainly the Bimson family, who were instrumental in acquiring these unique and beautiful animals for the Zoo. As much has been learned about orangutans over the years, the practice of keeping them in homes with humans is no longer in effect in many places.
During her life, Duchess gave birth to seven babies. Five of her offspring have reproduced, and she currently has three offspring, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild living in zoos across the country. Her legacy lives on through her offspring and she and her family are strong ambassadors for their species.
In March of 2010, the Zoo celebrated Duchess’ 50th birthday. She became an international sensation as the story of the “Oldest Bornean Orangutan in North America Turns 50” spread like wildfire. Bob Keesecker, one of her keepers, was quoted in the Associated Press as saying, “I told her it was her birthday today and she didn’t seem to be overly concerned about it,” he said. “I made sure her hair looked good before she went out.” Duchess and family enjoyed frozen ‘birthday cake’ stuffed with their favorite fruit and hundreds of guests who came out to celebrate with her sang her Happy Birthday throughout the day.
The Zoo’s birthday present to Duchess was breaking the ground on a $4 million exhibit, scheduled to open one year later. True to that birthday present, in April of 2011, Duchess and her family timidly stepped out onto fresh grass in their brand new, spectacular exhibit complete with two outdoor yards and two indoor day rooms with which to spread out and enjoy. For her daughter Bess and grand-daughter Kasih, who had never seen grass before, it was an experience unlike any other. Michael enjoyed being able to have his own space and get away from the girls for awhile! For Duchess, returning to a more natural and interactive environment was sensational. She also loved getting up-close-and-personal with guests as they would admire her through the glass. Guests and Zoo staff love the experience of coming face-to-face and eye-to-eye with the orangutans. Duchess entertained and mesmerized millions of visitors over her five decades at the Zoo. Most often, guests and staff would comment on her eyes and that when she looked at you, she seemed to be staring straight into your soul. She was wise and majestic, funny and serious, and playful and beautiful.
Around June 2012, keepers started to notice she wasn’t feeling well, and with our on-site veterinary care determined Duchess was suffering from high grade lymphosarcoma. This cancer spread extremely aggressively over the course of a couple weeks. Zoo staff and keepers have our animals’ dignity and quality of life as their top priority. Because of this caring nature, Duchess’s keepers and our veterinary doctors decided to let her be at peace. She passed away on June 24, 2012, but lives on in the hearts of many.
On Saturday, June 30, 2012, the Zoo remembered Duchess with a Celebration of Life. Guests posted photos and memories on a 4’ by 8’ card, listened to Zoo staff and keepers talk about her life, enjoyed a slide show of photos of Duchess submitted by guests, staff and the community and learned how they can help orangutans in the wild. Some guests even brought in items from a wish list of needed supplies for the orangutan family.
We have been deeply touched by the heartfelt words and thoughts about Duchess over the past few weeks. If you would like to share your memories and thoughts about Duchess, please go to the Zoo’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/phoenixzoo.
About Bornean Orangutans
Scientists estimate that wild orangutans could be extinct in 5-10 years if their forest habitat continues to be destroyed at the current rate. Forests in Borneo and Sumatra are being destroyed to grow palm oil, which is used in countless snack foods, household cleaning supplies and cosmetics. You can help reduce demand for unsustainably harvested palm oil by purchasing products that use certified sustainable palm oil and by supporting the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.