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Rudi Valentino, oldest orangutan dies at 45 in Texas

Rudi Valentino, a male orangutan and one of the Houston Zoo's longtime residents, is seen during one of his last public appearances before he died on December 19 at age 45, in Houston, Texas, U.S. December 16, 2022 REUTERS/Evan Garcia

Rudi Valentino, the oldest male orangutan in North America, died at the Houston Zoo on Tuesday at the age of 45.

Reuters visited the Houston Zoo four days before Rudi’s death to highlight his advanced age and distinction. The zoo celebrated his birthday earlier this month.

Rudi was taking medication for advanced heart disease, but behaved normally earlier in the day on Tuesday, said Houston Zoo spokeswoman Jessica Reyes. The orangutan spent time outside in his exhibit and showed no signs of slowing down. His keepers found him unresponsive at closing time, she said.

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“He even talked his way into getting an extra cookie right before they were done with their checks,” Reyes said. “And then he just went off to sleep and then that’s it.”

Rudi shared his exhibit with his companion Kelly, a 42-year-old female orangutan.

“Kelly we are keeping a close eye on,” Reyes said. “Just to see any signs of stress or grief.”

Rudi was born on Dec. 8, 1977, at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, and arrived at the Houston Zoo the following year.

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He became an ambassador for orangutans, a critically endangered species of great ape found only in the wild on the Southeast Asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. In nature, orangutans have a lifespan of 30 to 40 years, according to National Geographic.

Primate zoo keeper Cheka Heihn described Rudi as shy at first, but playful once zoo staff got to know him.

As Heihn threw treats to Rudi which he inspected, the zoo keeper underscored the intelligence of the 250-pound (110-kg)orangutan.

“Great apes, in general, share a large, vast portion of their DNA with humans, so we are very closely related,” Heihn said. “They are very intelligent. They have different personalities, just like we do. They think about things. They’re great problem solvers.”

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Four orangutans now live at the Houston Zoo, including a 50-year-old female orangutan named Cheyenne. Heihn described orangutans as a semi-solitary species that do not spend a lot of time in groups once the animals reach maturity. As such, the zoo’s orangutans often spent time alone or with one other orangutan in their enclosures.

Heart disease is a common health problem for orangutans, especially males, who typically do not live longer than females, Reyes said. Rudi outlived all other male orangutans accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums across North America.

A necropsy, or animal autopsy, will take place to confirm Rudi’s cause of death. The zoo plans to share their findings with research partners like the Great Ape Heart Project.

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