Sedgwick County Zoo’s chimpanzee Marbles dies at 44

Marbles, a Sedgwick County Zoo chimpanzee, died Sunday morning. He was 44.
Marbles, a Sedgwick County Zoo chimpanzee, died Sunday morning. He was 44. Courtesy of Sedgwick County Zoo

One of the Sedgwick County Zoo’s most beloved and recognized animals died Sunday morning from an apparent heart attack.

Marbles, an African chimpanzee, artist and charismatic lady-charmer, died at age 44.

He had been at the zoo since 1972.

“He formed the original basis for our chimp troop: Audra, Harriet and Marbles,” said Mark Reed, director of the Sedgwick County Zoo. “He was the iconic animal that was featured on all our posters and cups from our 25th anniversary. He was highly intelligent and learned how to undo the locks on the chimpanzee padlock doors, squeegee windows, rake and use a broom.”

Once, he opened the cages and let all 11 chimps out, Reed said.

“It took a lot of Pepsi and ice cream to get them lured back,” Reed said. “He was always full of antics.”

Marbles was a painter – or at least a sometimes “crayonist” – who was either inspired or preferred to eat the crayon, according to one Wichita Eagle article. Several Wichitans and supporters of the zoo have his artwork in their homes.

Marbles was donated to the zoo in 1972 by Betty Rounds, a prominent Wichita woman during the 1960s and 1970s who was connected with the development of the Lakepoint neighborhood in east Wichita.

Marbles was known for striking up friendships with blonde women.

Brook Houchen called him her boyfriend. They struck up a friendship seven years ago when she, her husband and children visited the Koch Orangutan and Chimpanzee Habitat at the zoo.

“It was like he recognized me,” Houchen said. “I went to see him the next week, the week after. I was hooked and going to see him once a week.”

Marbles would sit by her on the other side of the enclosure’s window, sometimes 30 to 40 minutes at a time. It was therapy, she said, for her as her mother was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. She would note on Facebook that she was going to see her boyfriend. Friends and relatives knew it was Marbles.

He would press his lips against the window for visitors he recognized.

“I fell in love with him. He became my inspiration and joy,” Houchen said.

Marbles was the alpha male for the zoo’s chimpanzee group until he was displaced by Bahati and then Moshi, who is the current alpha male.

Marbles fathered four offspring: a daughter, Sukari, who lives at the Sedgwick County Zoo; a son, Imara, at the Detroit Zoo in Michigan; daughter Hususa at the Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, Kan.; and son Chance at the Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas.

In recent months, Marbles had broken his upper jaw, which kept him from the public’s view while he tried to recover, Reed said. Testing revealed he also had a leaky heart valve.

The suspected heart attack Sunday morning quickly took his life, Reed said.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.