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

<< Back to Page 1   Page 2 of 2

Abe Karajerjian, a biological anthropologist who works with Westfall in the caretaking of the animals at the Cheeta Primate Foundation, says Cheeta and his companions are provided with an environment and social structure that is more suitable to their species rather than perpetuating their human-like lifestyles and behaviors.

"We just love them and love to do things for them," he said. "They made tons of people happy, they had to endure a lot to make people happy, and we want to give back to them, provide them with friends."

Westfall, a comedian and actor, adopted Cheeta about 10 years ago from his uncle Tony Gentry, an animal trainer who worked in Hollywood and discovered Cheeta while on an animal talent scouting trip to Africa in the 1930s.

The 4 foot (1.2 meter) tall, 142 pound (64 kilogram) chimpanzee starred in 12 Tarzan movies and had his last role 36 years ago in the 1967 musical film Doctor Doolittle.

Cheeta now spends his days socializing with other apes and human caregivers. At times he seems fascinated by looking at other animals on television and in the pages of magazines like National Geographic, said Karajerjian

On a few occasions the media has spotted Cheeta taking a ride in the car with Westfall, who said that Cheeta "likes to go through the drive-thru and get a hamburger and a Coke." Cheeta's staple diet consists of fresh fruit, vegetables, and monkey chow, which is a nonhuman-primate version of dog food.

In his earlier years Cheeta had a penchant for beer and cigars, reportedly drinking several cold ones a day. Westfall and Karajerjian said booze and smoke have not been a part of the old chimp's life since he came into their care ten years ago.

"Where he lives now nobody smokes and drinks," said Karajerjian. "I hate smoking and drinking and so why would I offer it to apes?"

At the sanctuary the apes are provided with a variety of activities to stimulate their intellect and curiosity. One of the activities is painting, which Karajerjian says allows chimpanzees to mimic their innate behavior of inventing and using tools.

Westfall says that Cheeta has developed a particular talent as an abstract artist and has trademarked Cheeta's creations as "Ape-stract." Cheeta uses a paintbrush and bright colors for his creations which are full of sweeps, swirls, and straight lines.

"They are very pretty, actually," said Westfall, who sells his companion's work for $125 a piece. The proceeds go to support the Cheeta Primate Foundation, which Westfall started to raise money for unwanted showbiz animals.

Entertainment Abuse

Cheeta is a rarity among chimpanzee actors in that he was used for films into his 30s. "Most of the chimpanzees used in the entertainment industry are used when they are quite young," said Rick Bogle of the Primate Freedom Project in Santa Barbara, California. The organization works for the protection of nonhuman primates.

Chimpanzees rarely act beyond the age of ten because they become less manageable and less willing to follow directions, said Bogle. When the chimpanzees are retired, many of them are sold into biomedical research.

Gentry, Cheeta's previous owner, feared a research laboratory was Cheeta's destination so he had asked in his will that Cheeta be put to rest. Westfall talked his uncle out of having Cheeta put to rest by promising to take good care of the chimp.

Ex-entertainment chimpanzees are unfit for zoos, said Fouts, because they do not behave like regular chimpanzees. "And often times they are not socialized to other chimpanzees so they would be difficult to integrate into a social population," he said.

Westfall said primate researcher Jane Goodall inspired him to start the foundation for unwanted showbiz primates. The other chimpanzees, orangutans, and monkeys in his care have starred in television commercials, nightclubs, and theaters, but none reached the star status of Cheeta.

"There are also some from labs that we'd love to get sometime to save their lives and give them a good, healthy home to live in," he said.

All of the animals in Westfall's care interact on a daily basis and with each other and their human caregivers. Westfall's house is not open to the public, but tour buses and children often stop in front where there is a statue of Cheeta.

Living Longer

Terry Wolf, wildlife director at Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee, Florida, which cares for about 35 chimpanzees, said that captive chimpanzees that were picked up from the entertainment industry and research facilities are living longer because humans are taking better care of them.

"The quality of health care and diet in the past was traditionally not all that great," he said. Now humans have a better understanding of chimpanzee dietary, physical, and social needs, including the need for interaction to prevent the onset of deadly bouts of depression.

Little Mama, a chimpanzee who starred in a traveling ice skating show before coming to Lion Country Safari in 1967, is thought to be 65 years old and like Cheeta is in good health. She is social and gets along well with her mates, with whom she lives on a series of islands in the drive-through zoo, said Wolf.

"Old age is something to be celebrated," said Virginia Landau, director of the Jane Goodall Institute's ChimpanZoo in Tucson, Arizona, which coordinates the study of chimpanzees in zoos and other captive settings.

Donations or a request for a piece of Cheeta's Ape-stract art can be sent to Westfall:

Dan Westfall
Cheeta Primate Foundation
PO Box 8162
Palm Springs, CA 92263

More National Geographic News stories about chimpanzees:
Humans, Chimps Not as Closely Related as Thought?
Extinction Risk for 1 in 3 Primates, Study Says
Uganda Chimp Numbers Higher Than Thought
Zoo Primates Go Bananas over National Geographic

<< Back to Page 1   Page 2 of 2


SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES

ADVERTISEMENT

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC'S PHOTO OF THE DAY

NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.