Natalia the chimpanzee: a tale of loss and enduring love

Natalia is still grieving: she lost her puppy three months ago, shortly after birth, but she continues to cradle him, caress him and touch him

Natalia, a 21-year-old female chimpanzee, has become the poignant focus of a story of mourning and maternal love at the Biopark in Valencia. For three months, Natalia has been holding the body of her deceased infant, who died just days after birth.

Despite the decomposition process, Natalia continues to care for the little one, gently caressing and touching it. This behavior, though painful to witness, provides a window into the complex emotional and social dynamics of primates, revealing great similarities with human reactions to loss.

Experts from the zoo have explained that this mourning behavior is not unusual among animal species considered highly intelligent, such as cetaceans, elephants, and primates. In chimpanzees, a species that shares about 98% of its genes with humans, this has been observed both in the wild and in captivity.

Chimpanzees exhibit a “highly developed awareness of death,” as indicated by scientific studies that have documented cases of mothers continuing to carry and care for the bodies of their young for extended periods.

Officials have decided not to intervene

Natalia’s situation is particularly delicate as she has already lost another infant in 2018. The officials at the Biopark in Valencia have decided not to intervene to remove the infant’s body, believing that interrupting the natural mourning process could cause further trauma. Moreover, such an intervention would pose significant risks, including the need to anesthetize several specimens, thereby endangering other young individuals.

The Biopark in Valencia houses Western chimpanzees, a subspecies threatened with extinction. These animals, raised within the framework of a European conservation program, live in conditions that strive to reproduce their natural environment as faithfully as possible. This approach includes respecting their natural behaviors, even those related to death and mourning.

Natalia’s case reminds us that animals, like us, experience pain and suffering from loss. Similar behaviors have been observed in other species that exhibit complex and touching rituals in response to the death of their young.

For instance, in 2018, the orca Tahlequah moved many by dragging her dead calf for 17 days before letting it go. Indian elephants, on the other hand, bury their dead young with their legs towards the other and perform real funeral rites, gathering around the burial sites trumpeting.

Source: Bioparco Valencia

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