Nature is not known for its tender compassion. But for the very first time, biologists have captured footage of a chimpanzee mother in the wild caring for her severely disabled child. The infant lived for only 23 months.
According to biologists from Kyoto University, the female infant’s lack of motor skills and slow development mirrored those of disabled chimpanzee infants sometimes born in zoos—most of whom were rejected by their mothers. The baby chimp had spinal damage, one of her fingers was paralyzed, and she had a severe hernia on her abdomen.
The mother, named Christina by researchers, had to make substantial sacrifices to care for her child. She couldn’t fish for ants, an important source of nutrition, because the infant couldn’t cling to her independently, so she needed to keep hold of it. And she had to keep breastfeeding the infant, who couldn’t make the switch to solid foods. The rest of the chimpanzee group, in the words of the researchers, “did not show any aversive or fearful reactions to the disabled infant,” but Christina didn’t allow the other chimpanzees to interact with her child. Occasionally, she would hand the infant to one of her daughters, or allow that daughter to help groom the infant.
Nobody knows the exact cause of death, but the infant’s lifespan was comparable to those of disabled infant chimpanzees born in zoos and cared for by veterinarians, so Christina’s care probably was as competent as the baby was likely to get.