Duchess Dead: Phoenix Zoo Orangutan Dies After Long Battle With Cancer

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX, June 24 (Reuters) - A beloved Bornean orangutan, reported by zoo keepers to be the oldest in captivity in North America, died at the Phoenix Zoo on Sunday after a weeks-long battle with cancer, officials said. She was 52.

Duchess, considered the matriarch of the Phoenix Zoo and one of its original animals, was euthanized on Sunday morning after her condition worsened from high-grade lymphosarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer, officials said.

"The cancer was incredibly aggressive and over the past few days, Duchess became increasingly weak and more lethargic," Gary West, executive vice president of animal health and collections, said in a statement. "The veterinary staff, alongside the keepers, made the difficult decision to humanely euthanize her."

Duchess was diagnosed with the cancer earlier this month after zoo officials first noticed a decrease in her appetite, among other symptoms. An ultrasound test revealed the cancer.

West said efforts were made to make Duchess "as comfortable as possible" in her final days.

The popular primate, who had been living at the zoo for 50 years, was born in the jungles of Borneo where she was orphaned at a young age, zoo officials said. She arrived at the Phoenix Zoo when she was 2 years old.

During her life, she gave birth to seven offspring, outliving four of them. Her family eventually spanned four living generations.

"Although we are deeply saddened by Duchess's passing, she long surpassed the number of years that orangutans live in zoos and preserves, as well as in the wild," Bert Castro, zoo president and chief executive, said in a statement.

Zoo officials said it is common for orangutans to live 30 years in the wild and an estimated 40 years in captivity.

Duchess had taken a place among the zoo's royalty over the years, and was feted with an all-day celebration in March 2010, marking her 50th birthday with a frozen treat with her favorite fruit inside, a giant birthday card and a "Happy Birthday" song from visitors.

The event was used to kick-off a fund-raising campaign for a $4 million orangutan exhibit, which opened in April 2011.

News of Duchess' death spread quickly on social media, prompting an outpouring of remembrances of the orangutan.

"Your spirit lives on in our hearts and our memories," one poster wrote on the Phoenix Zoo's Facebook page. Another wryly said, "RIP (Rest In Peace) Duchess... thanks for entertaining all of us 'humans' for so many years." (Editing by Mary Slosson and Sandra Maler)