The Story Behind National Geographic's Viral Chimp Funeral Photo

June 3, 2011
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The November issue of National Geographic Magazine features a moving photograph of chimpanzees watching the burial of one of their own. Since it was published, the picture and story have gone viral, turning up on websites and TV shows and in newspapers around the world. For readers who’d like to know more, here’s what I learned as I interviewed the photographer, Monica Szczupider.

On September 23, 2008, Dorothy, a female chimpanzee in her late 40s, died of congestive heart failure. A maternal and beloved figure, Dorothy spent eight years at Cameroon’s Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center, which houses and rehabilitates chimps victimized by habitat loss and the illegal African bushmeat trade.

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After a hunter killed her mother, Dorothy was sold as a “mascot” to an amusement park in Cameroon. For the next 25 years, she was tethered to the ground by a chain around her neck, taunted, teased, and taught to drink beer and smoke cigarettes for sport. In May 2000, Dorothy–obese from poor diet and lack of exercise–was rescued and relocated along with ten other primates. As her health improved, her deep kindness surfaced. She mothered an orphaned chimp named Bouboule and became a close friend to many others, including Jacky, the group’s alpha male, and Nama, another amusement-park refugee.

Szczupider, who had been a volunteer at the center, told me: “Her presence, and loss, was palpable, and resonated throughout the group. The management at Sanaga-Yong opted to let Dorothy’s chimpanzee family witness her burial, so that perhaps they would understand, in their own capacity, that Dorothy would not return. Some chimps displayed aggression while others barked in frustration, but perhaps the most stunning reaction was a recurring, almost tangible silence. If one knows chimpanzees, then one knows that [they] are not [usually] silent creatures.”

The Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center was founded in 1999 by veterinarian Sheri Speede (pictured at right, cradling Dorothy’s head; at left is center employee Assou Felix). Operated by IDA-Africa, an NGO, it’s home to 62 chimps who reside in spacious, forested enclosures.

Szczupider had submitted the photograph to “Your Shot,” a magazine feature that encourages readers to send in pictures they have taken. The best are published on the website and in the magazine.

Susan Welchman, the Geographic photo editor who sifts through reader-contributed shots looking for winners, was drawn to the candor of the image. “It caught my eye because you just don’t see that much emotion–human emotion–with animals,” she says. “It couldn’t have been posed or faked; there’s no way to make an animal look or act like that. It’s just so real and true, so pure.”

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