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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?

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
 

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