Peanut the Orangutan Has Cancer; Will Chemotherapy Save Her Life?

What happens when a great ape develops cancer? If she’s as well taken care of as the orangutan Peanut, then her cancer is treated with chemotherapy.

The eight-year-old orangutan, a resident of Miami’s Jungle Island, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in August when her veterinary team discovered the great ape was suffering from an intestinal obstruction. Further testing revealed that Peanut had cancer.

Peanut, who uses sign language and an iPad to communicate with her caretakers, has a fraternal twin named Pumpkin, which is an extremely rare occurrence in the animal world. Peanut and Pumpkin are the youngest of six orangutans at Jungle Island, where visitors love to watch the intelligent mammals roam their enclosed habitat. Though the twins both use technology and signing to communicate with their trainers, they are said to have wildly distinct personalities, with Peanut being the more demanding of the two. Fortunately, Pumpkin remains cancer-free.

MORE: 'Palmed Off': Is Your Dinner Killing Orangutans?

Peanut is not the only great ape to receive cancer treatment normally reserved for humans. In 2000, an orangutan at the National Zoo in Washington underwent surgery to remove a cancerous intestinal tumor, and in 2009 two gorillas at the North Carolina Zoo received radiation therapy. However, all three apes were in their 30s and 40s—which is older for these animals—and eventually had to be euthanized.

While doctors are careful to caution against unrealistic expectations, Peanut’s youthfulness means that her prognosis for a cancer-free future is good, or at the very least her cancer will go into remission, allowing her to live comfortably for a while longer. With no on-staff board certified veterinary oncologist, Jungle Island enlisted the aid of the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and UM’s Division of Comparative Pathology.

Dr. Joseph Rosenblatt admits that he doesn’t know what exactly to expect for Peanut, but that he and his team are, “intensely curious and potentially hopeful that we can help the animal. When the animal looks at you in the eye, it’s both sympathetic...and radiates intelligence.”

Rosenblatt has chosen a treatment plan that proved successful in humans, slightly reducing Peanut’s doses to prevent giving her more than her body can handle. For humans the process usually takes about four to five hours—for Peanut, it will take only three. She will receive six doses in 21-day intervals, unless a problem arises. Unlike humans, Peanut is sedated for her treatment, and it’s not known if the chemo will make her nauseous, as it does for many humans. The orangutan is allowed to rest out of visitors’ sight indoors until she feels ready to venture out into the enclosure. Though Peanut is more tired than usual, she has not lost much of her red fur.

Despite doctors’ cautious optimism, Peanut’s trainers and caretakers are making sure to exude a positive attitude in the orangutan’s presence, fearing that any mention of her disease might cause her fear and confusion. Though Peanut is capable of communicating with humans, words like “cancer,” “disease,” and “lymphoma” are beyond her vocabulary and comprehension. But the orangutan can sense that something is awry. Veterinarian Jason Chatfield, Jungle Island’s general curator, said Peanut, “absolutely knows something is wrong, something is different with her.”

Lest anyone question Jungle Island’s intentions, it’s clear that Peanut is well loved. Peanut’s primary trainer, Linda Jacobs, was on the verge of tears as she said, “I have been with her since she was I am really sensitive to her needs and moods.”

We here at TakePart definitely send Peanut our best and hope for a full recovery.

Is it ethical or unethical to make an animal undergo a potentially very uncomfortable treatment for a disease she can't even understand? Does it hurt more than it helps?

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Liz Acosta is a writer, artist, and activist living in San Francisco. She likes to practice what she calls "accessible activism," doing what she can to change the world. She loves dogs, photography, bicycles, IPAs, and Britney Spears.