Apr 7, 200603:25 PMThe Life
Monkeying around with Cheeta
Apr 7, 2006 - 03:25 PMBirthdays for Sunday, April 9:
Cynthia Nixon turns 40
Dennis Quaid turns 52
Hugh M. Hefner turns 80
Cheeta turns 74
Cheeta holds the Guinness record for being the world's oldest chimpanzee, and began his movie career by co-starring with Johnny Weissmuller ("Tarzan") in the 1930s. [Click thumbnail photos to enlarge.] I recently spoke with Dan Westfall (whose uncle, Tony Gentry, brought Cheeta to this country) at the C.H.E.E.T.A. Primate Sanctuary here in Palm Springs:
When did Cheeta arrive from Africa?
He came over from Liberia in 1932. After sending the natives out into the jungle, they came back with several baby chimps, and he was the smallest. He was only 3 or 4 weeks old, and so small that my uncle could put him under his jacket. Tony brought him to Hollywood and made him a star. He'll be 74 on April 9. We actually don't know the exact date he was born, but we always celebrate it on my uncle's birthday.
This Cheeta was not the only animal that played the part?
No, my uncle had four different chimps that played Cheeta - Jiggs 1, 2, 3 and 4. This one was Jiggs 4. His first movie was released in 1934, Tarzan and His Mate. You can see he's still just a baby and rides on the back of Jiggs 1. He moved into the role of Cheeta as he became a little older.
How many Tarzan movies did he make?
About 10 or 12. They used different chimps - one could climb a tree better, and so forth, so they all had understudies, like humans do. And then there were different trainers throughout the years with different chimps, who worked with different Tarzans. Most people remember Johnny Weissmuller, but there were about 20 Tarzans. Cheeta's last movie was in 1967 - Doctor Dolittle, with Rex Harrison.
Is it true that Cheeta needs to take daily shots of insulin?
Yes, he's been diabetic for about six or seven years. Every day I take two samples of his blood, and give him one shot of insulin. When he sees the needle coming, he just holds up his arm.
Really? He doesn't object to it?
Well, I first started taking blood samples from his fingertip, like they do for humans, and after a week or two, he made it clear that he didn't like that. So now I take the blood from his wrist - he just holds it up for me. And when he sees the hypodermic for the shot, he just holds up his forearm.
Why did you take on the responsibility of caring for him and the other primates here?
Love of the animals. I had a chimp act, years ago. My other uncle put together The Marquis Chimps, and I did the act for awhile, in the Palm Springs Follies. Now it's a labor of love. I mean, they've always been in the family and we're all retired now, so we just live on donations. The sanctuary is non-profit. We have five more orangutans coming in to a building we have up in the high desert. We don't have any more room here. I met Dr. Jane Goodall several years ago, and she said, "You ought to bring in retired show business primates." So that's what we're doing.
Is this similar to Tippi Hedren's work?
Sort of. She has mainly big cats, and we specialize in primates. Our goal is to give them a good life. They made millions of people happy, and now that they're retired, it's time for them to live well, without the stress of performing.
You maintain an environment that is geared to their behavior patterns. How do you do that?
Well, when they were in show business, they were always in front of a camera, and had to respond to commands. But I never force them... in fact, even when I had the chimp act, I never forced them to do anything they didn't want to do. If they didn't feel like doing a trick, we didn't do it. We'd just do something else they wanted to do. I made a game out of everything for them, so it was always fun.
When was Cheeta officially named the world's oldest chimpanzee?
He got the Guinness World Record when he was 69. The chimp that previously held the record lived to the age of 59. Cheeta is still going strong - he climbs all over the place, and still has every tooth in his head.
Wow. I wish *I* still had every tooth in my head...
[Click to hear some of Cheeta's calls.]