Another day, another unexpected celebrity death. Yesterday at 2PM, the Prince of the Zoo fell to his death, perhaps after a heart attack or stroke. I thought the Prince of the Zoo was Metro Chair David Bragdon, but, no, an in-depth Oregonian feature reveals it was a chimpanzee named Charlie.

Charlie during happier times.
  • Charlie during happier times.

I've never been to the Oregon Zoo (zoos creep me out), nor did I know Charlie personally. But his life story is an interesting one and Metro's emotional press release tells it well.

As an infant, Charlie was nearly killed as part of the bushmeat trade in Africa. He came to the United States as a pet and was given to the zoo in May of 1972.

Dave Thomas, senior primate keeper at the zoo and one of Charlie's original caretakers, described the charismatic 39-year-old, 160-pound chimp as the "Prince of the Zoo," a title bestowed on him by zoo veterinarian Mitch Finnegan.

"We thought we'd have another 20 years," Thomas said. "It's the end of an era, and the zoo will never be the same. We have to go on though — to provide care and support for our remaining females: Delilah, Leah, Coco and Chloe."

"As we experience our own personal grief, we take solace in knowing our primate care staff provided the best care and maintained deep friendships with Charlie," said Mike Keele, the zoo's acting director. "He will be in our hearts forever."

A memorial event for Charlie is being planned, and details will be provided early next week. In addition, zoo visitors can offer condolences or share favorite memories of Charlie on the zoo's web site.

Charlie had an eventful day, as a national zoo conference — the annual meeting of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums — brought people to the Oregon Zoo whom he had not seen since the 1970s and '80s.

"It was a beautiful day that ended abruptly just after 2 p.m.," Thomas said. "Charlie was having some wonderful experiences, seeing friends he had not seen in a very long time."

When Charlie went down, a volunteer was the first to see him in distress. Senior Keeper Dave Thomas was the first staff person on the scene and called the zoo's animal emergency code on the radio. Veterinarians and animal-care staff rushed to the scene, but the four females were surrounding Charlie, out of concern for him. It took several minutes to get the females away, so veterinary staff could offer aid. Tragically, when the veterinary staff got to him, he had already passed away.

The primate keeper staff has since placed the females back together. Leah and Delilah immediately went back to the spot where Charlie fell. Thomas believes they will continually look for him in the next few days and weeks, knowing something is terribly wrong. Primate keepers will not be taking time off to grieve and will do their best to keep to their regular routines in an effort to provide comfort to the females. Grief counselors will be available for zoo staff and volunteers.

"The girls need to know that we are still here for them," Thomas said.

Charlie was highly intelligent and was the undisputed leader of the zoo's troop. However, he was not born into this life of luxury. It was just by chance that he was saved from the perils of the bushmeat trade.

Charlie was born in the wild forests of Africa around 1970. At the time, Edward Miller, a mineral contractor, was working in mines on the border between Liberia and Sierra Leone. One day, Miller and his family saw some locals walking around town with an infant chimp, and he knew its mother must have been killed. Given the prevalent local bushmeat trade, Miller realized the orphaned baby chimp might well end up another casualty. He offered to purchase the chimp from the locals, no questions asked. Miller named him Charlie, after the code name for the mining site where he worked.

Charlie lived as part of Miller's family for about a year, playing and sleeping alongside his three young boys. Miller knew, however, that the chimp's needs would eventually exceed what his family could provide. Because Charlie could no longer survive on his own in the wild, Miller decided to bring him to the United States (which was legal in the 1970s). It was determined that Charlie would be taken care of at the Oregon Zoo, but only under certain conditions: Miller wanted to ensure that Charlie would get special treatment from his keepers, called "enrichment," since he was already so accustomed to living and interacting with humans.