Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the great ape still has “this twinkle in her eye,” her caregiver says

By Alison Schwartz
Updated September 20, 2012 01:00 PM

On a good day, Peanut the orangutan greets visitors at Miami’s Jungle Island zoo as they pass by her enclosure. If she likes them or finds them particularly interesting – yes, even great apes have discerning taste when it comes to people – she’ll go out of her way to earn their attention with what her primary caregiver Linda Jacobs describes as “this twinkle in her eye – this sparkle.”

On a bad day, and there are bad days sometimes, Peanut is tired. Since she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in June, she’s undergone two installments of chemotherapy treatment in hopes that the 8½-year-old is young enough, strong enough, to overcome her cancer.

“She has days where she’s just fatigued,” Jacobs tells PEOPLE.com, “and that twinkle’s still there – it’s just not so bright.”

Peanut’s battle isn’t all that different than that of a human cancer patient, says staff veterinarian Dr. Jason Chatfield, who’s collaborating with medical professionals from the University of Miami to help the orangutan.

The biggest change is how the treatment is administered. “She’s more like a toddler in the mind,” explains Chatfield, so doctors use general anesthesia to subdue Peanut for the 1½-to 2-hour process (compared to the estimated 4½ hours humans require because the drugs are run faster for her treatment).

At this point, he can’t say exactly how effective the treatment has been, or if there’s a guarantee she’ll be cured. (A rep for Jungle Island wouldn’t disclose exact expenditures, but says many of those helping Peanut have waived their fees or offered their services at cost.)

However, Chatfield says, “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think we could make a difference.”

‘Not Herself Right Now’

In the wild, animals learn to hide their hurt. “You don’t want to appear to be weak or vulnerable,” Jacobs says. “It’s just their nature to be able to tolerate a great amount of pain and mask it very well.”

So it’s no surprise Peanut’s diagnosis was discovered by chance. She was undergoing abdominal surgery in May to fix what was assumed to be a simple obstruction; a microscopic exam of tissues revealed the larger, but unrelated, issue.

Doctors agreed: The cancer was aggressive. Untreated, it would spread and Peanut would survive another year, maybe.

But this might all be news for Peanut, who communicates with Jacobs through hand gestures. She touches her lips when she wants food; when her fingertips come together, she wants more. She puts her hand out and shakes it: hurry.

Those are her most common demands still. If anything, Jacobs says, her appetite for her favorite foods, like blueberries and jackfruit, has surprisingly increased. She hasn’t lost any of her reddish-orange hair.

“It’s a stretch to say that Peanut understands she has cancer,” Jacobs says, “but Peanut understands she’s not herself right now.”

A Sister’s Bond

Her twin sister, Pumpkin, understands, too. Sometimes, Peanut is too tired to play.

The week before Peanut underwent her second chemotherapy treatment on Sept. 5, Pumpkin went over to her twin and put her arm around her, as if to say with her gesture alone, “I’m really here for you,” Jacobs says.

The zoo’s other four orangutans look at her with concern, she says. “But we never talk about the treatment and cancer in front of [Peanut],” Jacobs says. The Jungle Island staff keeps it positive around her, and it’s always up to Peanut if she wants to venture into the outdoor area, where there’s a breeze and people, or stay indoors and rest.

Peanut is due to undergo another round of treatment some time in October. While cancer is not uncommon in animals, even apes, Chatfield says, Peanut’s case is distinguished by her relatively young age. (Previous cases, including orangutans at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and another at the North Carolina Zoo, involved apes in their 30s or 40s, in the context of an estimated 50-year lifespan.)

For now, Jacobs is hopeful when she thinks about Peanut’s recovery.

“Peanut is a little firecracker by nature,” she says, and not all that much has changed. “She wants lots of attention – whether she feels well or not.”

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