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Tonk the Chimp Born at Lion Country Safari

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

New mom, Irene, holding her baby, Tonk, at Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee.

Photo by Lion Country Safari

A new addition has joined the family at Lion Country Safari. A male chimpanzee named Tonk was born to mother Irene on Dec. 30.

Tonk is the first chimp born at Lion Country Safari in more than 16 years.

Irene is a smart, slightly mischievous chimpanzee who has done a wonderful job caring for Tonk as a first-time parent. She has been protective and nurturing.

Lion Country’s public relations and social media manager, Haley McCann, said Irene recently began allowing her sister, Juniper, to care for Tonk on occasion. Juniper “is thrilled by this development, so sometimes you’ll see her carrying him around, with Irene close by to keep watch.”

Lion Country has three separated groups of chimpanzees. Tonk lives with Irene, Juniper, his father, Ben, and his uncle, Jake.

“The island habitats here at Lion Country Safari, which are interconnected by a bridge system, provide a unique opportunity for the chimps in our care to replicate their natural nomadic living conditions,” McCann said. “While other institutions might house their chimpanzees on islands or move them through different exhibit spaces, Lion Country Safari’s great ape habitat is unique in that we’ve combined both aspects. No other institution in the world rotates their chimpanzees across various islands.”

Inheriting his mother’s strong personality, Tonk recently began vocalizing. “We usually hear him join in with his family’s happy food noises around meal times,” McCann said. Infant chimps cling to their mothers for the most part, though staff members have witnessed Tonk standing with Irene’s support. “Irene is really good about giving him tummy time,” McCann said. “Tonk is also getting bigger and stronger every day.”

Irene showering baby tonk with kisses.

Video by Lion Country Safari

Tonk’s name honors the Tonkolili Chimpanzee Project, which was co-founded by Lion Country’s chimpanzee coordinator, Dr. Tina Cloutier Barbour. Cloutier Barbour also participates in the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ Chimpanzee SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) program as program leader.

The Tonkolili Chimpanzee Project operates in Sierra Leone in West Africa. The project aids and educates people living alongside chimpanzees who at times experience chimps taking their crops or attacking humans or livestock. The project encourages preservation efforts to keep the apes safe from poachers.

With the help of the Tonkolili Chimpanzee Project, communities that were once at odds with chimps now assist research.

Tonk hanging out with his mother Irene and other chimps.

Photo by Lion Country Safari

“Dr. Tina also does some really incredible work with the chimpanzees under our care, including a heart health training program that she pioneered,” McCann said. “AZA-accredited facilities across the nation have adopted this program for heart health monitoring for chimps and other great ape species.

This program has significant impact on our understanding of some of the health issues geriatric chimps naturally face and how we can advance care to address those issues.”

Lion Country Safari opened in 1967 and was likely the first cage-free zoo in the United States. It has 90 species and over 1,000 wild animals. Visitors drive their own cars along a 4-mile, fenced-off safari path to observe the animals in seven habitats.

“We care for large herds of animals in our multiacre habitats, including the largest herd of zebra currently on record in North America, as well as some of the largest herds of giraffe and rhinoceros,” McCann said.

Baby Tonk relaxing on his mom's chest.

Video by Lion Country Safari

Like Tonk, many of the animals are part of threatened species. Lion Country Safari contributes to several breeding programs trying to stave off extinction.

This December will be Tonk’s first Christmas With the Chimps, a Lion Country event for the past 37 years. “Santa Claus makes a special trip to visit the chimpanzees under our care, and he and his helpers deliver presents to the chimps by boat,” McCann said. The gifts include plush stuffed animals and clothes. “The chimps really enjoy it every year, and so does our staff and community.”


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