‘Tarzan’s Chimpanzee’ Cheetah dies aged 80

Posted on December 28, 2011

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Cheetah star of the Tarzan films died last week of kidney failure

This morning when I came into work there was an email from my news editor waiting in my inbox. It was news that Cheetah from the Tarzan movies had died on Christmas Eve aged 80.

In the subject heading was the word “obit”. At first I thought, is this a joke? It’s highly unusual first of all for a chimp to live to such a ripe ole age and it’s even more unusual for a news programme like Channel 4 to want to pay tribute to an animal. It’s only the second time that an animal obit has featured on the station – the first obit was on the death of the Thoroughbred racehorse Red Rum in 1995.

But I was certainly not going to talk down this opportunity of showing incredible film archive from MGM studios, broadcasting the Tarzan wail and doing a piece-to-camera with some primatological facts.

When I embarked on this story little did I realise the confusion I’d face. Who knew there were two old aged chimps with the same namesake living in captivity in the United States with people claiming they’re roughly around the same bloody age – what are the odds?!

Cheetah from Florida is believed to have appeared in the 1930’s movies and lived at a sanctuary in Florida where he died from kidney failure on Saturday. Whereas Cheeta from California lives in Palm Springs with his trainer Dan Westfall. He’s “written” an autobiography and has been awarded the Guinness World Record for being the oldest non human primate in 2005 – somehow I think that’s doubtful now. Chimps never live beyond the age of about 50 in captivity and yet against the odds both of these great apes have pushed the boundaries to reach 80 and 79 respectively. Could this possible? Without a birth certificate there’s no absolute way of knowing. Most of the people who worked with these two animals are themselves dead and buried.

Cheeta who lives in Palm Springs, his trainer claims he's around 79 years old

But Cheetah was not the only ape  in Tarzan films. In fact there were several chimpanzees used during the Golden Age, including a female chimp that apparently was very aggressive towards co-star Maureen O’Sullivan. She preferred the company of the males actors and had to be kept at a safe distance from the actress. She was reputed to have tried to launch at her at any opportune moment.

Today Mia Farrow tweeted:

“Cheetah the chimp in Tarzan movies died this week at 80. My mom, who played Jane, invariably referred to Cheetah as “that bastard”.

Cheetah also managed to outlive both his co-stars Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan.

As magical as it is to see a primate on film, primates should never be ‘trained’ to perform, they are wild animals and should be living out their lives in the forests of Africa. When Cheetah has taken from the wild he was just an infant, lord knows what happened to his mother and the rest of the troop. I fear they were butchered, either before or after Cheetah was “found”.

Tarzan and Jane with Cheetah

Although tonight’s piece is a tribute, I was able to crowbar in some facts conservation concerns in a piece that was published for the website on-line. You can read it here and hopefully they’ll have uploaded my report from tonight’s programme later.

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Posted in: A tribute