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Are we chumps for believing this was Tarzan's chum? Experts scoff at Cheetah story

Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, right, and Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane flank chimpanzee Cheetah in a Tarzan the Ape Man image.

Associated Press (1932)

Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, right, and Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane flank chimpanzee Cheetah in a Tarzan the Ape Man image.

PALM HARBOR — Cheetah, a chimpanzee who may or may not have starred in Tarzan movies in the early 1930s, died Saturday at a sanctuary on Alt. U.S. 19. He was allegedly approximately 80.

The cause was kidney failure, said Debbie Cobb, outreach director of the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, who announced the death on the sanctuary's website. A statement called the chimp "star of the Tarzan films."

On Wednesday, Cobb said Cheetah liked finger painting, watching football and listening to nondenominational Christian music.

Word of his death was worth about 800 stories on Google News by Wednesday evening. Headlines referred to him as "Superstar Tarzan chimp." Mia Farrow, the daughter of Maureen O'Sullivan, who played Jane in Tarzan, said in a tweet that her mother used to refer to Cheetah as "that bastard" because he bit her a lot.

What's certain is that he is no longer living. What's not so certain is his silver-screen celebrity.

• • •

The Tarzan movies were based on books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. There was no chimp in the books. For the purposes of comic relief, Hollywood created the character of Cheetah — or Cheeta or Cheta or Chita — played by more than a dozen chimps.

The most publicized Tarzan chimp lives in Palm Springs, Calif., not Palm Harbor. The story of the original animal star was a doozy, involving Liberia, a trainer named Tony Gentry and a smuggle job on a Pan Am flight from Africa in 1932. In 2008, in a piece in the Washington Post Magazine, R.D. Rosen debunked pretty much all of it, starting with the fact that commercial transatlantic flight didn't start until 1939.

People didn't want to hear it.

"It's devastating to be told that everything you've been told is a lie," a film producer told the Los Angeles Times.

Above all else, though, chimps typically live no more than 40 years in the wild and no more than 50 in captivity. To have been in black-and-white movies made during the Depression, and to still be alive, and to be a chimp — "very improbable," a chimp expert told the New York Times on Wednesday.

"The world is full of chumps when it comes to old chimps," Rosen said Wednesday on the phone.

He added: "The real fake is the one I wrote about."

• • •

Cobb's grandparents started what was then known as Noell's Ark Chimp Farm in 1954. They did it year-round beginning in 1971. She said Wednesday that she was a kid when Cheetah arrived about 1960.

Looking back through stories in the archives of the St. Petersburg Times, the owners of the facility seem conspicuously quiet about the presence of a movie star.

A story in 1982 didn't mention Cheetah.

A story in 1985 mentioned Cheetah, but it had nothing about Tarzan.

A story in 2002 mentioned Cheetah, "said to be a former star from the old Tarzan movies," and described his "graying muzzle."

On Wednesday, when asked for corroboration of Cheetah's Tarzan roles, Cobb gave a Times reporter two brochures. One said that "Little Mike was called Cheetah. ..." The other said the facility "cares for more than 70 animals, including Cheetah, the chimp from Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies. ..."

She said she first heard about Cheetah's role in Tarzan from her grandparents, who once had a vaudeville-style traveling show in which the chimps boxed people in a ring.

"My grandmother heard about it and my grandfather heard about it, so that's how it got handed down," she said. "We didn't really know. They didn't have stamped birth certificates with their pictures and footprints."

• • •

Who was he? He was him.

The chimp once decorated a musician's guitar by request. He relished red popsicles, although on colder days he preferred cream of wheat with oatmeal and hot, herbal tea. He liked to play "tag," running from one side of his cage to another, and a YouTube video shows him pushing a 50-gallon plastic drum in circles before tiring and throwing it down. Even in his old age, Cobb said, he was always game for someone playing with his lips or toes. He enjoyed blankets with a lavender scent.

Of the 14 chimps now in their care, eight are more than 45 years old, Cobb said. When one dies, handlers take the body past the other cages, letting the others smell, touch and know. About two years ago, a chimp named Donna died, and Cobb brought her body by Cheetah's cage.

"He reached out and held my hand."

And, he did something that, Cobb said, chimps aren't able to do: He shed a tear.

Cheetah was still playing up until two weeks ago, when he started experiencing flu-like symptoms. Blood work revealed the kidney failure, and he convalesced in his "bedroom," a hideaway behind his cage. He died at 3:42 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

Now, in the sanctuary's office in an octagonal wooden box, rest the cremated remains of its most famous resident. A gold plate bears his name.

Cheetah.

News researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8751.

Are we chumps for believing this was Tarzan's chum? Experts scoff at Cheetah story 12/28/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 28, 2011 11:01pm]
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