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Phoenix Zoo's oldest orangutan has cancer

by Jennifer Thomas

Posted on June 20, 2012 at 11:10 PM

Updated Thursday, Jun 21 at 11:01 PM

PHOENIX -- An orangutan that has called the Phoenix Zoo home for 50 years has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.

Zookeepers recently noticed that Duchess had become less active and wasn't eating as much. Test results showed that she has a malignant form of cancer, specifically lymphosarcoma, that likely involves multiple organs, according to Dr. Gary West, executive vice president of animal health and collections.

"We are consulting with outside oncologists to discuss treatment options to ensure that we can make her as comfortable as possible during the twilight of her life," West said.

"This is probably the toughest part of my career," said senior keeper Denise Wagner. "I've been doing this a long time so it's not like this is the first animal I've lost, but I've worked with her for eight and a half years and it's the longest concentrated period of time I've ever worked with an animal, and it's hard."

Duchess is the oldest Bornean orangutan in North America and is one of the original inhabitants of the Phoenix Zoo. She was born in the jungles of Borneo where she was orphaned at a very young age. She came to Phoenix in 1962 when she was around 2 years old.

Shortly after moving into the zoo's new orangutan exhibit last year, Duchess found a new hobby. After watching a zoo staff member clean the windows in the exhibit for several weeks, she decided to give it a try herself. When zookeepers noticed her new-found interest, they provided Duchess with chalk and a rag (watch video above).

During her life, Duchess has given birth to seven babies. Five of her children have reproduced, and she currently has three living offspring, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild living in zoos across the country.

Zoo officials said Duchess has far exceeded the life expectancy of an orangutan.