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The fascinating life of Paignton’s celebrity chimp

As part of our centenary celebrations, we are looking back at 100 years of zoo history to revisit some of the most iconic and intriguing stories from Paignton Zoo’s history. One such story is that of Mary the chimp, or Primley Mary as she was often called.

Herbert Whitley was gifted the 2 year old Mary in January of 1922. A group of big game hunters brought her back with them from a trip to central Africa where they had accidentally shot and killed her mother. Whitley, having had established a reputation for his collecting and nurturing of exotic species was an obvious candidate to be granted care of the orphaned chimpanzee.

She weighed just over 5kg on arrival, but by the time she was fully grown, she had reportedly become the largest chimp in the country, weighing in at a whopping 63kg.

Staff from the Primley estate were charged with caring for the young primate, although none ever claimed to have trained her.

mary 1922
Mary shortly after she arrived at Primley

Copycat chimp

“Mary is probably the most intelligent chimpanzee in captivity. She has never been trained. She has merely been properly brought up, and does what she is told to do.”

Daily Express, March 1926

chimp washes car 1926 cropped
Readers were fascinated by tales of Mary’s intelligence

Instead of being trained, Mary seemed to learn merely by imitating the manners of the humans surrounding her. She would greet visitors by taking them by the hands and leading them around the estate. She unlocked doors and held them open for guests, politely standing by before following them in or out. She learned how to help the gardeners with pulling weeds and potting flowers. She happily washed motorcars and fetched milk from the gatehouse on Totnes Road – a surprising sight for many of the local passers-by!

Phyllis Fairweather, who worked for Whitley as a reptile and fish keeper at the time, recalled how Mary would spend hours of an afternoon fishing in the ponds with a toy fishing net. She would briefly inspect any fish that were caught before gently returning them to the water.

Phyllis also remembered how Mary used to light up a cigarette after afternoon tea on the lawn, where she would always drink from a cup and saucer. It was Phyllis’ thrifty mother who began tailoring the outfits Mary would become known for out of Whitley’s old suits.

Many hours were spent fishing in the pond
mary smoking
Picking up some of Whitley’s habits

The good life

Mary spent her mornings riding around the grounds on her tricycle and walking the dogs. There was one dog in particular, a fox terrier, who she had a special fondness for, and the dog seemed to return that affection. Mary would often help herself to the kennel keys to let her furry friend out to play.

mary 1924
Taking the tricycle for a spin

The cheeky chimp clearly felt comfortable opening things by herself; there was at least one instance of her unlocking all of the cages housing the smaller monkeys, releasing them out onto the site. This caused pandemonium for the staff who had to try and round them all up again!

After 6 years at Paignton, Mary developed a serious case of pneumonia. Although there was no shortage of staff willing to nurse her back to health, Mary sadly died in 1928.

mary 1927
In her later years, Mary was thought to be the largest chimp in the country

Mary’s story is a reflection of the times in which she lived. At that time, animals were routinely sourced from the wild as zoos did not yet have the sophisticated breeding programmes and collaborative partnerships that ensure that animals in zoos today are born in captivity. Although tales about Mary are undeniably charming, it should come as no surprise that our approach to how we best care for animals in our zoos has changed dramatically, and the circumstances of Mary’s life would not be replicated today!

However, we believe there is value in looking back at history and reflecting on how far we’ve come. This in turn can motivate us to continue moving forward and striving to make further progress in our understanding of the natural world.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of Paignton Zoo as well as our plans for the centenary celebrations, please click here.

Editor’s update (08/02/23): We have removed the photograph we believed to show Phyllis Fairweather with a young Mary after a former member of staff kindly wrote in to inform us that the image was in fact a photograph of her and a baby chimp named ‘Joe’ taken in the 1950s.