Antwerp Zoo is this weekend in mourning for the death of Maaike the chimp, who died on Friday at the age of 38.
It was never expected that Maaike would live to reach such a mature age. She arrived in Belgium with another chimp, in shocking circumstances and on the edge of death. The two chimps had been brought into the country illegally, a gift from the dictator of what was known at the time as Zaire, now called the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Maaike’s companion died on arrival, and Maaike herself was seriously ill. An attempt to raise money to send her to a chimpanzee refuge failed, and she came into the hands of Antwerp Zoo.
That fundraising campaign was the work of Michel Vandenbosch, now director of animal rights group Gaia, his first venture into animal protection work that goes on to this day.
Nothing more was heard, until in 1999 a former zoo worker told the Gazet van Antwerpen that Maaike had been kept in an enclosure by herself for the past 19 months, away from the other chimps.
The reason for this solitary confinement, the man explained, was that Maaike was considered too ugly to be shown to zoo visitors. She had a skin condition that affected her appearance, which was not being treated. She received no visits, and was barely exposed to daylight – a free source of therapy for many skin conditions.
When the scandal broke, Maaike was moved back in with the rest of the troop. But she had been absent for 20 months by that time, and was not expected by the others. The analogy with the Ugly Duckling is accurate: she was attacked, her hair pulled out, and she was scratched until the blood flowed.
She was also extremely weak after her lengthy ordeal, and unable to defend herself. At one point, the discussion was whether she ought not to be euthanised to end her suffering.
The solution, however, was much simpler. A dermatologist contacted Dr Francis Vercammen of the Zoo to offer his help. Together, the two men came up with a cortisone treatment for Maaike which eased the itching, meaning she would no longer tear her own hair out.
Not long after, in 2000, Dr Vercammen was able to predict, “If she remains stable like this, she can live to forty with this medication without any problems.”
The doctor’s forecast was off by two years. Maaike, once the Ugly Duckling of the Antwerp Zoo, lived to the age of 38.
The public reacted to the news on Facebook.
“Maaike had a good time with you. She will certainly not be forgotten,” was one recurring message.
“Just because you’re not mother’s prettiest doesn’t mean you can’t be mother’s sweetest. We will miss you,” said another.