“OH WAIT, is she crying?” the photographer almost squeals in surprise. Just seconds ago, 58-year-old Rita was a picture of conviviality. Grinning from ear to ear, generously baring her yellowing teeth and pink gums, the chimpanzee seemed like she was eager to shake hands with her new visitors. Sitting in an iron cage at Delhi’s National Zoological Park, Rita is suddenly quiet, one of her translucent grey eyes watering.
Vinod, who has known Rita for the last one-and-a-half years, playfully calls out her name, pats her cheek and quickly administers dexorange syrup, an oral supplement for iron deficiency. At 5pm every day, he leaves behind three jugs of water in her cage with the lights, fan, and cooler on. No one really knows how she spends her time once the shutters come down. She is the last survivor in her house, bereft of company.
But thanks to Rita, the zoo will find a place in the Limca Book of Records this year for housing India’s oldest chimpanzee.
Last year, her birthday was celebrated with much fanfare. Rita came to Delhi on February 27, 1964, as a four-year-old from Amsterdam. In 1974, the London Zoological Society gifted two chimps. One of them was Max. A robust adult male, Max would turn out to be Rita’s one true mate. She had four children with him, from 1977 through 1981. All four died. Soon, Max was dispatched to the Jaipur zoo, and in his stead came Gogo. But Rita and Gogo, who were packed off to Chhatbir zoo in Punjab, could never really hit it off. Gogo met with his death there.
The mid-1980s saw two more chimps—Ruby and Rustom—come to Delhi from Japan. Rustom was hostile towards two young male chimps, Morris and Monny, who were brought in from Germany. Thankfully, Rustom was soon exchanged for Rita. It is said that Rita was the happiest when Monny and Morris were around. She took great care of them, like they were her own children.
When Monny died in 2014, Rita did not eat for four days. She stopped coming out of her cage and became a recluse. Vinod says Rita never acquired any bad habits. “Rita drinks her milk and returns the empty jug when I ask for it... she even hands me her blanket for cleaning during the winters,” Vinod fondly attests to Rita’s good conduct.