Tarzan's Cheeta's Life as a Retired Movie Star

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
May 9, 2003

Many Hollywood stars retire in the oasis of Palm Springs, California where they wile away their golden years splashing paint on canvases, taking leisurely strolls, playing the piano, and flipping through the pages of magazines.

Such is the life of 71-year-old Cheeta, the chimpanzee of Tarzan fame who celebrated his birthday a month ago.

"He's the world's oldest chimp and in excellent condition," said Dan Westfall, who cares for Cheeta and several other retired showbiz primates at the Cheeta Primate Foundation in Palm Springs. Cheeta's "world's oldest" title is noted in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Chimpanzees in the wild tend to live for 40 to 45 years and to the mid 50s in captivity, according to chimpanzee researchers.

Activists for the proper care and treatment of chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates applaud Cheeta's age record, but caution against celebrating the lifestyle of chimpanzees that were stars in the entertainment industry.

"Would you go to a movie if you knew the child actors had been kidnapped and been forced through abuse by their kidnappers to perform silly, demeaning acts?" asks Roger Fouts, co-director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.

Activists say that retired entertainment chimpanzees engage in human behaviors such as watching television and reading magazines because they were deprived of a natural lifestyle and were instead trained to behave like humans, often through physical abuse.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that they are pretty dysfunctional," said Gloria Grow, co-founder of the Fauna Foundation which cares for neglected and abused animals in Quebec, Canada.

For example, Grow said that several of the chimpanzees in her foundation's care, including those that were in the entertainment industry, do not know how to have intercourse or how to look after their young.

"It is common scientific knowledge that taking mothers from babies has very serious consequences for the psychological well-being of both the mother and the infant, yet this is what happens to every trained chimpanzee," said Fouts.

The Good Life?

Continued on Next Page >>


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