SAN FRANCISCO -- One of the San Francisco Zoo's most beloved primates, known as the "matriarch" of the chimpanzees and a favorite of staff and visitors alike, died Sunday from heart disease related to breast cancer, zoo officials said.
Tallulah, an expressive-faced chimpanzee who was estimated to be in her mid- to late-50s, was a "funny, clever, confident trickster" who commanded respect from the zoo's other chimps, said Abbie Tuller, communications director for the San Francisco Zoo.
The playful primate, described as "exceptional" by her keepers, came to the zoo in 1967 after being raised privately as a pet, and was among the oldest chimpanzees in AZA-accredited zoos in the United States.
Having been a fixture at the zoo for 45 years, Tallulah inspired many stories that have become an integral part of the zoo's folklore, including the suggestion that her face served as the inspiration for Yoda in the "Star Wars" films. She also once reportedly found a shovel and posed as a replica of artist Grant Wood's "American Gothic," giving up her shovel only when offered a hamburger and a Pepsi.
Tallulah enjoyed flipping through recycled magazines, and liked to "people-watch" her many visitors as much as they enjoyed viewing her. Zoo visitors came to know her as "the chimpanzee with the blanket," and she was often seen snuggling up with the leopard-print fleece, sometimes wearing it as a sarong.
Tallulah's advancing years and declining health inspired the zoo to adopt new techniques to care for its geriatric animals, Tuller said. Extra steps and handrails were added to her climbing structures, and her indoor quarters were made more warm and comfortable. Her health problems also prompted zoo officials to address special dietary and health care needs of the older animals, driving them to forge new partnerships with UCSF cardiologists and veterinary oncologists.
Tallulah was beloved by the other three members of her chimpanzee troop, a tight-knit group that had been together since the 1960s, Tuller said. The other three members remain in good health at the popular San Francisco Zoo exhibit.