Mourners gather to remember Hank

Mourners gather to remember Hank

February 6th, 2011 by Carey O'Neil in News

Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press Friends and fans of the Chattanooga Zoo's best-known chimpanzee resident, Hank, take their seats before a memorial in his honor on Saturday afternoon.

Hank was taken from his African home as a baby. Raised among humans in a circus before moving to the Chattanooga Zoo, the chimpanzee didn't seem to consider himself an animal.

"I think he always thought he was a person," said Rick Jackson, who spent seven years caring for Hank before the chimp was found dead at age 42 on Jan. 24.

And like a person, Hank was remembered.

About 200 people attended his memorial service Saturday afternoon, sharing stories of their interactions with the chimp who would jump and holler as he ran alongside groups of children, stopping occasionally to press his lips to the glass for a kiss.

"I think Hank was the closest to that connection we all want to have to communicate with animals," said Judith Williams, a mourner who had known Hank for all his time in Chattanooga.

Jackson said most people felt the same way, and judging by his own interactions with Hank, the feeling was likely mutual.

"He's always just really loved visitors," he said. "He always wanted his attention, wanted you to spend time with him. He was always real persuasive."

Mickey Myers, one of Hank's veterinarians, said he'd witnessed some of that persuasive ability.

To treat Hank, Myers would have to hit him with a tranquilizer dart -- an experience Hank didn't seem to like.

"He quickly learned that I was the guy with the dart gun, and he would turn around and show his fanny," Myers said.

But Hank would always be Hank, his personality not changing, Jackson said, even as the chimp reached old age.

"A 30-year-old chimp is a geriatric chimp," he said, making the over-40 Hank quite elderly. "He had a lot of gray on him."

Before his death, which initial reports say was caused by heart problems, Hank did start to slow down a bit. He lost some hair, grew a big gray beard and would spend afternoons sitting in a chair zookeepers put out for him -- all actions that seemed to reaffirm his almost-humanity.

"He would do everything a human old person does," Jackson said. "He was happy until the end."