Chimp and Foster Mother Reunite After 30 Years

chimp reunion photo
Photo: Chester Zoo / cc

Although it has been well over three decades since Georgie Seccombe first met Sally, a baby chimpanzee that had been rejected by her mother at a nearby zoo -- the passing of time has done little to weaken the bond they formed back then. Their story begins in the 1970s, when Georgie's husband, the head-zookeeper, brought home orphaned Sally as a way to offer the animal a chance at life. Over the next two years, Georgie served as foster mother to the young chimp, hand-raising and doting her with the affection she required. Eventually, Sally was relocated to be among her kind and the pair lost touch. Just recently, however, now 95-year-old Georgie and 38-year-old Sally had occasion to reunite -- and it seems in all that time they haven't missed a beat.Georgie, now well into her Golden Years, recently made it to Sally's home for a visit with her former ward after decades apart. Despite the fact that Sally has been residing at New Zealand's Hamilton Zoo, among other chimps for most of her life, the memories of her earliest years with her foster mother have yet to escape her mind.

"She's just really lovely. She knew my voice straight away. She was up on a hill and I called out 'hey Sal' and she came bounding down," Georgie told The Waikato Times. "They are really intelligent," she added, as proud mothers are prone to do.

Sally's keeper at the facility, primate specialist John Ray, says that he was "blown away" by the chimpanzee's ability to recognize her foster mother after so many years. "[To] be part of this reunion has been an incredible experience."

Some might question to what extent the emotional experience of primates mirrors our own, but for those who work with chimps on a daily basis, their feelings are often as transparent as ours.

"She got very excited. When she gets excited she'll do a bit of a dance, put her hands in the air, reach out to people that she wants to get closer to ... It's her happy dance, which she did when she saw Georgie," Ray told The New Zealand Herald.

It could be said that the less-than-human status of primates like chimpanzees is what makes them subject less-than-humane treatment they experience in their ever-dwindling natural habitats -- or worse, in test labs throughout the world -- but both formal research and informal observations seem to challenge these notions of a profound difference between our species.

Such realizations aren't uncommon in folks like Georgie, who opened her heart and home to an orphaned chimpanzee decades ago, or Sally for that matter as the beneficiary of this uncommon-human bond.

Reflecting on the experience after being reunited with the chimp she raised for a time in the 1970s, for Georgie it seems the words and labels that divide human and animal emotions lose their footing in light of their bond -- a lesson so simply expressed by the oldest and wisest among us.

"It was pretty hard to give her back," says Georgie. "She's just like a human being."

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