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Eli the orangutan, one of the more popular and well-known residents of Utah's Hogle Zoo, died Saturday of breast cancer. He was 24.
Formally named Elijah, he became a media celebrity of sorts for successfully picking the winner in advance of the past seven Super Bowls. That accomplishment earned him national recognition in Sports Illustrated magazine and on MSNBC.
"Eli was the class clown, a total ham," said Bobbi Gordon, the zoo's senior great ape keeper. "He aimed to entertain and please. … He enjoyed doing silly things to make guests or keepers squeal, laugh and scream."
Eli was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. Zoo veterinarians have monitored him closely since then, said spokeswoman Erica Hansen, in part because cancer is rare in orangutans. He was the only male known to have it, along with two females.
A surgeon from Huntsman Cancer Institute performed one of two operations that removed the original mass, Hansen said, noting that subsequent CT scans and ultrasounds were used to look for signs of metastasis and to observe any progression of the tumor in lymph nodes near one of Eli's armpits.
"Eli was a model patient," said Nancy Carpenter, Hogle Zoo's senior veterinarian.
But of late, the orangutan displayed signs of discomfort. His appetite diminished. Suspicious that Eli's cancer had spread, zoo veterinarians conducted an exploratory surgery Saturday. He died during the operation.
"We were hoping to find something fixable," Carpenter said. "The staff worked tirelessly, but the mass in his neck was blocking his airway, and he succumbed."
Preliminary results from an autopsy later showed that cancer had spread to his neck and liver, Hansen said.
Eli was born at a zoo in Topeka, Kan., where he lived until moving to Hogle Zoo in 2004. Hansen said Eli lived "as a family unit" with a 23-year-old orangutan named Eve. He had a 9-year-old daughter named Acara.
Senior ape keeper Erin Jones is among the many zoo personnel who said she will miss Eli.
"I was lucky enough to have worked with Elijah for 10 years. He had a lot of patience as long as you were giving him attention," Jones said. "He was always eager to learn, even complicated behaviors. He made me a better keeper."