The plot thickens–was Cheetah a cheater or was the cheater Cheeta (without the h)?

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A “Cheeting” scandal from 2008 is surfacing today, adding an unwanted (by those charmed by the story) question mark to the heartwarming story yesterday that “Cheetah”, the original chimp from the 1932 Tarzan the Ape Man movie and a number of other Johnny Weismuller Tarzan films, had died at the astonishing age of 80. Turns out there was a scandal a few years ago involving another chimp, this one named “Cheeta” (without the ‘h’), whose owners initially claimed he was the original chimp from the Tarzan movies, only to be proved in the end to be an imposter. (Although it’s not really fair, is it, to call the chimp the imposter? It was the humans, after all, who made the claim.)

So, it being the holidays and there being time to ponder matters such as this, let’s look at the evidence.

First, regarding Cheetah, who died on December 24: The chimp resided at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Fla. Debbie Cobb, outreach director at the facility, told The Tampa Tribune that Cheetah was about 80 years old and died Saturday of kidney failure. According to the Times:

Ms. Cobb told The Tribune that the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary received Cheetah from Weissmuller’s estate in Ocala, Fla., around 1960. Of the 15 chimpanzees kept at the sanctuary, she said Cheetah was the most famous and an outgoing ape with a gentle personality who had long outlived the 35 to 45 years that chimpanzees typically survive in captivity.

“He was very compassionate,” Ms. Cobb said. “He could tell if I was having a good day or a bad day. He was always trying to get me to laugh if he thought I was having a bad day. He was very in tune to human feelings.”

She said Cheetah was soothed by Christian music and also enjoyed finger painting and watching football, though she was unsure if he had any favorite teams.

The original Times story cites an Agence France Press article which outlines the earlier scandal involving a chimp known as “Cheeta” (no ‘h’), injecting a note of caution into the Times report. The scandal referred to involving Cheeta was actually detailed in a very thorough 2008 Washngton Post Report called Lie of the Jungle: The Truth about Cheeta the Chimpanzee by R.D. Rosen.  The article, which runs to 6,000, provides a great deal of detail on Cheeta, and on the sanctuary called the C.H.E.E.T.A  Primate Sanctuary (Creative Habitats and Enrichment for Endangered & Threatened Apes), who eventually recanted the story that Cheeta was Weismuller’s sidekick.  (The C.H.E.E.T.A website makes no ongoing claims about the film career of Cheeta.)

What’s clear from the foregoing is that there was a Cheeta, who turned out to not be the chimp from the movies, and Cheetah, whose owners are currently laying claim to the title but who are beginning to encounter a backlash of skepticism.

The NY Times article has been updated today to include a change in title that reflects the controversy greater  skepticism (“Chimpanzee said to be Cheetah in Tarzan Films has died”)  an interview with an expert in chimpanzee life spans:

Dr. Steve Ross, assistant director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, said he found it “very improbable” that a chimpanzee who appeared in films in the 1930s would still be alive in 2011.

“To live into your 70s is really pushing the limits of chimp biology,” Dr. Ross said in a telephone interview. “Eighty is tough to swallow.”

Referring to records kept by the center and dating to 1901, Dr. Ross said that the oldest surviving chimpanzee he was aware of is a female named Little Mama, now living at the Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee, Fla., and whose age is “in the range of 72, 73,” he said. “But even that I would always say is plus or minus 10 years, because the records from that far back are always very sketchy.”

The oldest male chimp, Dr. Ross said, is Keo, who lives at the Lincoln Park Zoo and is about to turn 53. “Animals that live into their 40s are definitely considered elderly by most any standards,” he said.

Meanwhile, joining the fray today is Mia Farrow, who tweeted that her mother, Maureen O’Sullivan, always referred to the chimp as “that bastard”, as it seems the chimp in the movies, whoever he was, would “bite her at every opportunity”.


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