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Steinberg: Zoo’s eldest resident, Cookie the cockatoo, dead at 83

Cookie the cockatoo, oldest resident of Brookfield Zoo, died Saturday. He was 83. | Provided

He was crusty, a curmudgeon, as only the elderly can be. Sometimes he would shriek. While he did tolerate certain people, others he just wanted to bite.

“If he didn’t like you, he let you know it,” said Tim Snyder, a business associate. “He was like a cranky old geezer.”

Then again, he had reason. He had his infirmities — osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, cataracts. And perhaps the lingering effects of a broken heart.

“Back in the 1950s, we tried to introduce him to a female,” said Snyder. “She was not nice to him. He didn’t want anything to do with her.”

But Cookie the cockatoo, 83, who died Saturday, was seldom alone. He was the coddled patriarch of the Brookfield Zoo.  His years of putting on shows, and being on TV and on public display, were behind him, and he was cared for, outside of the public gaze, in an office at the Reptiles and Birds House. Cookie was the oldest Major Mitchell’s cockatoo known, a fact recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records. He was one of the zoo’s “biggest stars,” and the last of 270 animals present at what was then called the Chicago Zoological Park when it opened June 30, 1934, in Brookfield, on land donated by Edith Rockefeller McCormick. He had come from the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia and was estimated to be a year old.

In recent weeks Cookie had been “a bit off,”  according to Snyder, the zoo’s Curator of Birds. The staff suspected allergies. Then “the first keeper came in Saturday morning and found him at the bottom of his enclosure,” said Snyder. “We got him to the hospital, but there was nothing much we could do.” The difficult call was made to euthanize Cookie.

No decision has yet been made as to the fate of his colorful pink and salmon remains. Typically, animals that die at the Brookfield are buried or cremated. But sometimes extraordinary specimens are preserved, and Cookie the Cockatoo might end up in the Field Museum collection.

“We’re still looking into that,” said Snyder.

Despite his cantankerousness, Cookie was loved. “There’s a lot of mourning in the department that cared for him,” said Snyder. “Cookie has been at the zoo longer than any of us working here. He’s seen a lot of people through their careers. If he could talk, he would have some amazing stories to tell.”

He actually could talk. Some of his trademark lines were “Peek-a-boo” and “Quit your screaming.” But not the type of talking Snyder was referring to, and lately Cookie only made “cute happy noises,” particularly when he received his daily taboo treat of two peanuts, unsalted, in the shell.

The Brookfield Zoo is accepting condolences on its Facebook page, and the possibility of a memorial is being discussed.