Cobby, oldest chimpanzee in North American zoos, dies aged 63

Cobby, the oldest male chimpanzee in an accredited North American zoo, died on Saturday at the San Francisco Zoo & Gardens. He was 63.

The chimpanzee was hand-reared to perform before he was brought to the San Francisco zoo in the 1960s. Although the zoo said in a news release that cause of death had not been determined, the animal had been ill and officials believe old age was a factor.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists chimpanzees as endangered. Due to hunting, habitat loss and disease, they are considered among the most at-risk primates in Africa. The average life expectancy of the 100,000 to 200,000 chimpanzees in the wild is 33 years. In human care it is between 50 and 60, the San Francisco zoo said.

In 2015, an Australian filmmaker making a documentary about Cobby described to the Guardian his short-lived career in 1960s children’s TV, trying out human activities in a series of shorts called Cobby’s Hobbies.

“There was a set that Cobby would be put in and he’d play all of the parts, including his wife, Cobina, and also his own conscience, which was dressed as an angel,” said Donna McRae.

“Cobby’s inner monologue would narrate the episodes. Cobina sounded a bit like Zsa Zsa Gabor, while his conscience sounded like a classically trained English actor. Cobby himself sounded like he was from the Bronx.”

Calvin Productions, which made the show in Kansas City, stopped filming in 1964. Cobby was donated to the San Francisco zoo.

A trailer for Cobby: The Other Side of Cute.

Referring to a 2012 film about Sixto Rodriguez, a long-forgotten musician from Detroit, McRae described her film, Cobby: The Other Side of Cute, as “Searching for Sugar Man with chimps”. It was released in 2018.

On Sunday, zoo officials said Cobby was integral in bringing together its chimpanzee population, acting like the elder of the troop.

“Cobby was part of San Francisco,” said Tanya M Peterson, executive director of the San Francisco Zoological Society.

“He touched so many lives, and people have so many memories of him. He is irreplaceable, and our hearts are broken. We will all miss seeing his handsome grey beard watching over us from the top platform of the yard.”


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