(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — Following the death of Joe the orangutan, his mate Dasa and their offspring Otis have returned to their exhibit.

Joe had fallen ill on March 5, lacking appetite, fatigued and displaying behavioral changes. The zoo staff decided to pull the animals from their exhibit for diagnostic testing. While Joe’s condition failed to improve, Dasa and Otis were in good health. Eventually, Joe succumbed to heart failure.

Joe died on March 19, and Dasa and Otis returned to their exhibit on March 22.

“Dasa and Otis were with him throughout the entire process, so they were able to process the situation as it happened,” Erie Zoo spokesperson Emily Smicker said. “Animals process things differently than human beings do. They were pretty good within a day or two of his passing, so we felt safe putting them back in their exhibit.”

Dasa and Otis had access to their behind-the-scenes space during their first servals days back in the exhibit, but Smicker says they didn’t really use it.

“Otis was being his rambunctious self,” Smicker said. “Dasa is a lot more animated now. She’s filling Joe’s shoes and being a lot more active by the glass.”

Joe’s death was met with an outpouring of community support. Residents and well wishers alike posted their sympathies and memories of Joe to the zoo’s Facebook page. The City of Erie’s Facebook page offered its own condolences in a brief post, as did state Sen. Dan Laughlin.

While Joe was sick, get-well notes were taped to the window of the orangutan exhibit at Erie Zoo.

The zoo staff set up a memorial table with a notebook so visitors could write their memories of Joe.

On March 30, Stella’s Cookie Jar delivered cookies with pictures of each of the orangutans on them. A note said, “Life is short, surround yourself with good people and good cookies!”

Owner Stacy Callison, 42, of Cranesville said she grew up going to the zoo, and she has fond memories of Joe.

“Joe has always been there. Even since I was a kid. I love all the animals at the zoo, and I especially loved him,” Callison said. “I have pictures of my kids with him. He was one of my favorite things at the zoo, and I was so sad when I heard that he had passed.”

When she heard that the zoo was looking for photos of the orangutans, she fired up her edible printer and got to work. Callison used photos from the Erie Zoo’s page, printed them on edible icing sheets, and then affixed them to sugar cookies. She decorated around the images to make the cookies look like Polaroid photos.

“He’s obviously more than just an animal at the zoo. He meant so much more than that to people. I can’t imagine what the caretakers were feeling like,” Callison said. “I work next to the zoo, and when it’s nice out and I’m outside, I can hear the monkeys, so this was just something nice I could do.”

It took about two evenings of work to bake and decorate the cookies. Baking is something that she does as stress relief from work and “the everyday.”

Some of the staff kept the cookies, and some of the staff ate the cookies, Smicker said.

“We were overwhelmed by the support from our community, and we’re very moved by the continued support even now,” Smicker said. “Losing an animal at the zoo is like losing a family member. Joe held a close place in our hearts… The support helped the staff a lot, but it also helped other visitors and supporters. It helped them process a difficult thing and to know there’s a silver lining in seeing the joy that Joe brought to so many people.”

Visitors and well wishers have offered their sympathies. Cookies have been sent. And Smicker, too, is remembering Joe fondly.

“I started at the zoo in February 2019, so at that time we were still closed for the winter, and not many animals were out on exhibit. One of my daily favorite activities to do and still do to this day is whenever I take a break from the computer, I don’t take a coffee break, I take an orangutan break,” Smicker said. “I would go sit in the exhibit and Joe would blow me kisses. Each of the orangutans are so unique and they have a unique personality. Just that I have a job where I can go take a 15-minute orangutan break is truly special.”

Joe the orangutan

Joe was 36 when he died. He had spent his entire life in captivity in zoos. Smicker said she balances the notion that he lived his life in zoos with the fact that his life has helped protect the wild population of his species.

“Joe served as an ambassador to his species,” Smicker said. His primary function was propagating his species through mating programs. “The Orangutan Specials Survival Plan pairs animals to mates so it’s a great genetic match. That’s to ensure that the babies are happy and healthy with no inbreeding and without deformities.

“These endangered animals can go their entire life (in the wild) without finding a mate because their habitat has been so destroyed by humans.”

The goal, Smicker said, is to rebuild and protect the habitat so that zoo animals may some day be reintroduced into the wild.

“Unfortunately, with the way things are in the world, it’s more of a risk,” Smicker said.

She noted that though Joe received limited human interaction from handlers, he still loved human beings. According to Smicker, Joe would wait until dark before going into his behind-the-scenes room because “he didn’t want to miss visiting with a single person.”

Though the orangutans blow kisses and interact with the visitors, Smicker stressed that they’re not at the zoo for entertainment.

“That’s not our goal. Our goal is to get people to interact with these animals they’d never see so they will invest in them, or so they will make changes in their lives to help these animals in their natural habitats,” Smicker said.

Dasa wraps up in a blanket and Otis climbs a log in the orangutan exhibit at Erie Zoo.

In the afternoon on April 4, Dasa and Otis were in their exhibit. Otis was picking at Dasa and she decided it was nap time. Otis laid down with her and the two cuddled on blankets together, but it was clear Otis was not sleepy. He kept his eyes wide open and looked around for the few moments of cuddling. Then, done with snuggle time, Otis crawled off to explore the centerpiece wood structure in the exhibit.

Dasa recently celebrated her 30th birthday. The zoo put birthday-themed enrichment into the exhibit for her to enjoy.

“While they can live and be very happy in family units, in the wild, often times, the males go out on their own and live semi-independently and only come together to mate or for survival purposes,” Smicker said. “For the most part – and there are always exceptions – it is not uncommon for females to live independently from their males.

“A lot of people have been worried about Dasa and Otis, asking if we’re going to bring in another male. Instinctually, (Joe’s death) shouldn’t be a very big impact, at least with their health and wellbeing.”

May marks the beginning of the zoo’s “main season.” The main building will open in mid-May, and this year the primate exhibit at the center of the zoo will feature brand new species, Smicker said. Smicker couldn’t say which species would be newly arriving but she did say she hoped the exhibit would be open by the end of June.

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“This year, there will be lots of new and engaging things for visitors,” Smicker said. “We’re making sure visitors have an incredible experience and that we’re launching our zoo into the next chapter.”