NEW: Peter the Chimp, longtime Lion County Safari favorite, dies at 43

He was a longtime resident of the western communities. He never went to polo or had a coffee at the food court at the Mall at Wellington Green. But in his 40-something years here, he still made his mark on his special corner of Palm Beach County.

Peter, a 43-year-old chimpanzee and fixture at Loxahatchee’s Lion Country Safari, passed away Friday, according to Jennifer Berthiaume, spokeswoman for the 260-acre wildlife park. It is believe that he died of a heart attack, a common ailment for chimpanzees, but the official cause cannot be confirmed until the results of a necropsy, also known as an animal autopsy, said primate curator Tina Cloutier Barbour.

“I just remember him as having a really big heart. He brought a lot of joy to everyone who knew him,” said Barbour, who had worked with Peter since she came to the park in 2004.

VIDEO ONLINE: Christmas comes early for chimps at Lion Country Safari

Peter, who had lived at Lion Country Safari since he was 2 years old, left behind his constant companion, fellow chimpanzee Luna, 35, and their daughter, Orbit, 21.

Barbour said Peter was originally a resident of the park’s nursery, having been “a retired pet. It’s shocking how often that happens. They grow up quickly, and have short tempers and are very, very strong. They do not make good pets, and people learn that very quickly.”

One of 18 chimpanzees at Lion Country, Peter “had a larger-than-life personality. He would gesture these huge gestures to us, flip his lip at us. He was a big clown,” she continued. “We all really loved him very much.”

Although chimpanzees “don’t have mates, necessarily,” Peter and Luna “had been together for decades,” Barbour said. When Lion Country staff came to the part of the park where Peter was “to go get him, she did not want to leave his side. She does this thing when she’s frustrated with us, that she gestures to us. We said ‘Luna, come on please, we want to have you move.’ But she was like ‘I am not leaving.’ She was definitely mourning.”

Peter was one of the older chimpanzees at Lion Country Safari, “although there are quite a few older. We have a large number of geriatric animals,” Barbour said. “The median age of a chimpanzee in captivity is 32. Peter had a nice long life. He was more one of the guys. He had a really low-key personality.”

She added that he was the only male in his social group and “didn’t want to be the alpha much, and was very happy to let a female,” a member of his group named Sabrina, “take the leadership role.”

At the time of his death, Peter was in training for voluntary blood-pressure checks, which were “a series of small steps” to get him used to being regularly monitored, Barbour said. Chimpanzees, particularly males, often have high blood pressure, and once they have “positive reinforcement, they can sit quietly and have it done. They enjoy it and get great rewards. Of course, it’s always up to them if they want to work with us. We couldn’t force him to do anything he doesn’t want to do.”

At the moment, there are no public remembrances planned for Peter. The last time “we lost a chimpanzee it was really, really awful,” Barbour said. “We made a big poster board that reminded us about him and encouraged us to talk about them. We’ll probably do an in-house memorial and all grieve together.”

She said that she would like it if Peter’s death brought awareness to the problems of chimpanzee heart disease, as well as the problems caused by owning them as pets: “We are happy to have them, but there are a lot of difficulties in training them. We’d also like people to not support them in the entertainment industry.”

Personally, Barbour will remember Peter for the joy he brought to people, exemplified by his pant hoot, “which is a sound (chimpanzees) make. He made it when he was happy. I always remember he had such a distinct one. He was just a happy chimp.”

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