Frans de Waal calls his new book Mama’s Last Hug in reference to an emotional encounter between Mama, a 58-year-old chimpanzee, and Jan van Hooff, an 80-year-old biology professor. Mama is frail and near death when Van Hooff, who had overseen her care for decades, enters her cage at Burgers Zoo in the Netherlands.
Mama smiles and Van Hooff bends toward her. She strokes his white hair and drapes one of her arms around his neck, patting the back of his head with her long fingers. “This was typical Mama,” writes De Waal, who had long observed the chimpanzee. De Waal gave her the name Mama because of her matriarchal position.
“She had the air of a grandmother who had seen it all and didn’t take nonsense from anybody,” De Waal writes. “I had never sensed such wisdom and poise in any other species but my own.” When Van Hooff entered Mama’s cage, “she must have sensed Jan’s trepidation about invading her domain, and she was letting him know not to worry. She was happy to see him.”