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Young chimpanzee Keeva killed within her troop at Lowry Park Zoo (w/video)

Keeva, a young female chimp who came to Lowry Park Zoo in 2015, was found dead Thursday morning. Violence is not uncommon among chimps, zoo officials said. [Lowry Park Zoo]
Keeva, a young female chimp who came to Lowry Park Zoo in 2015, was found dead Thursday morning. Violence is not uncommon among chimps, zoo officials said. [Lowry Park Zoo]
Published Sep. 28, 2017

The scene at Lowry Park Zoo Thursday was somber. Two chimpanzees sat quietly in their living area, the site of a tragedy the day before.

In an office at the zoo, Lee Ann Rottman, Lowry Park's Zoo's top primate specialist, was baffled by what had happened to Keeva. The young chimpanzee she hand-raised as a baby was found dead in the primate sleeping quarters Wednesday morning, the victim of an apparent attack by other chimps.

The orphan chimp was just 2 and a half, the equivalent of a kindergartener in temperament. She was last seen pirouetting around the sleeping quarters with two older chimps that Rottman said adored her. But in the morning, zookeepers found Keeva lifeless and riddled with bite marks.

"We don't know what happened to be honest," Rottman said in a tearful interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "I love chimps. ... What makes them so unique is they are so much like us. They have a lot of the same emotions. They laugh, they cry.

"But on the aggression side they are wired a little bit quicker to go into what I call a 'red area.' I think that's the biggest difference, and it's the most baffling. I wish I had an answer to tell you why this happened. I don't think I'll ever get it."

Courtesy of Lowry Park Zoo

Keeva was born at The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore to a 27-year-old female chimpanzee thatwas not adapting to motherhood. Staff removed Keeva from her mother and found a suitable surrogate mother in a 32-year-old chimpanzee at Lowry Park Zoo.

Keeva was born on March 12, 2015 at the Maryland Zoo to a first-time mother chimp named Carole. But the 27-year-old chimp was not adapting to motherhood. She wasn't nursing her or bonding with the baby, the staff observed, so they made the difficult decision to remove and hand-rear the baby while searching for a suitable surrogate.

She was 3 weeks old when she was flown to Tampa by private plane. Rottman and other workers at the Lowry Park Zoo took turns holding her while wearing fur vests and feeding her within sight of the adult chimps.

She couldn't be left alone at night, so Rottman took the infant home. "She slept next to me," Rottman said, snuggling next to her in bed in between bottle feedings every two hours.

When Keeva was 5 months old and teething, she was introduced to Abby, now 34. She could stand upright and hold her head up on her own, and like a willful child sometimes ran to Rottman instead of Abby. But something clicked, and the two bonded when Keeva was 6 months old.

"I raised her from 3 weeks old to 6 months and my brightest day was when she found a chimp mom," Rottman said. "Having it end this way is devastatingly tragic."

Keeva spent the next two years delighting visitors at the zoo, showing off and tossing her toys. She weaned herself at just over 1 year, something unheard of in chimp societies where babies often nurse until 5. She liked food more, Rottman said, and would throw the bottles away and demand bananas and cooked beans instead.

Courtesy of Lowry Park Zoo

Lee Ann Rottman, vice president of conservation at the Lowry Park Zoo holds Keeva, who she hand-raised as a baby. Rottman led the team that gradually introduced her to her adoptive mother Abby after her own mother in Baltimore had rejected her.

On the night she died, Keeva was with two adult chimps. Twiggy, a 31-year-old female described as Keeva's closest friend, was often seen playing with Keeva and feeding her — a kind of sharing chimps rarely do. She was also with Nick, 26, a male who was moved to Tampa on May 12 from the Fort Worth Zoo. A low-ranking male often beat up in Texas, Rottman said, Nick loved the peaceful troop of females and seemed to genuinely like Keeva.

"With Keeva he was adorable," Rottman said. "That's why it's so hard for me to come to terms with this. I've seen both Twiggy and Nick love her. He would hold her and tickle her and make her laugh and he'd play airplane with her," she said, holding her arms in the air over her head.

Chimpanzees, the closest living relative to humans that share some 98 percent of human DNA, are communal and highly intelligent. But they are known in both the wild and in captivity to snap in an instant and kill.

And with a body strength five times greater than the average man, Rottman isn't sure she could have stopped the attack even if it happened right in front of her.

It's the second time in the Lowry Park Zoo's history that a chimp has killed another. And it's the second time this year that a chimpanzee with ties to the Tampa zoo has died in a fatal attack.

In 2006, Herman, a 41-year-old beloved fixture at the zoo, was killed in a fight. His attacker was Bamboo, who Rottman described as his "best buddy." She's still puzzled by that one, though the hierarchy of males in a troop is a frequent cause of friction.

In February, Lowry Park Zoo transferred a male chimp named Bahati to the Kansas City Zoo. In June, Bahati, 31, was killed. During a chase, he fell from a missed branch and was attacked by other chimps, in full view of guests at the zoo.

"Any time you move a chimp, a lot of thought goes into that," Rottman said. "You look at genetics but also personalities and how they mix. They were very happy with him.

"It's been a tough, tough year for us."

The zoo, which offered grief support to its employees, is now evaluating its troop of chimpanzees and welcomes a review by outside primate experts who have been called on to make recommendations, said Larry Killmar, senior vice president and chief zoological officer.

The chimps have been "very quiet" since the attack, Rottman said, unusually so. They remain on view to the public, and Thursday afternoon Twiggy sat quietly on a rock wall while Jamie, the eldest of the troop at 39, lounged on an elevated play structure. The other two chimps, Abby and Nick, would be brought out later.

Abby and Nick get along well, but in a group Abby tends to use the other females to pick on him. Rottman is keeping Nick with just one other chimp at a time for now.

"I'm not mad at Twiggy or Nick," Rottman said. "They are still wild animals and there are some things you are never going to understand."

Times staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.