Brow Beat

R.I.P. Cheetah, Star of Tarzan Films … Maybe

Cheetah, a chimpanzee who starred in many of the Tarzan films of the 1930s, died of a kidney failure Saturday. According to the Tampa Tribune and the Associated Press, Cheetah was “outgoing, loved finger painting and liked to see people laugh.”

Or so we’re led to believe. The story bears an uncanny resemblance to the story of Cheeta (no ‘h’), the chimpanzee who also reportedly starred in the Tarzan films of the 1930s, but was ultimately revealed to be an almost certain imposter in a Washington Post Magazine feature in 2008. Indeed, the only difference between the two stories appears to be that one of them was subject to a fact-check.

I should point out here that I’m a known skeptic of certain animal interest stories. But some stories simply deserve skepticism.

So let’s take a minute to recall the story of Cheeta (no ‘h’). Cheeta was a media darling, beloved by Newsweek, People, and even This American Life, which spoke admiringly of “Cheeta from the Tarzan films” in a segment on primate retirement homes in February 2008. Cheeta even had near-mythic origins: Animal trainer Tony Gentry claimed to have smuggled him from Liberia onto a U.S.-bound Pan Am flight in 1932 by concealing him under his jacket. This story, widely repeated, was the first one debunked by R.D. Rosen in his 2008 story for the Washington Post Magazine. “Transatlantic commercial airline service,” Rosen points out, “wasn’t inaugurated until 1939.”

Rosen’s 6,000-word story, “Lie of the Jungle: The Truth About Cheeta the Chimpanzee”—a model of animal-interest reporting—goes on to question nearly all the facts of Cheeta’s life. Cheeta supposedly came out of his first retirement at 34 years old to portray Chee-Chee in 1967’s Doctor Dolittle, but Rosen points out that “Chee-Chee is played by a juvenile chimp no older than 7 or possibly 8.” Rosen also soon discovered that Gentry gave several conflicting accounts of how he obtained Cheeta:

In the space of six months in 1985, Gentry had told reporters that he had acquired Cheeta in 1932 in the Belgian Congo, that he had obtained Cheeta in Santa Monica “mebbe” in 1938 and that he bought him in Santa Monica in the late 1940s.

Faced with these new revelations, even the C.H.E.E.T.A. Primate Sanctuary, where Cheeta was housed, was forced to acknowledge that Cheeta was probably a fraud. Their website explains that Cheeta is “unlikely to be as old as we’d thought, although he is clearly old,” and they also admit that he may not have starred in any movies at all. It seems that Cheeta’s impersonation of Tarzan’s true star was only as convincing as that chimpanzee’s impression of Hitler:

After this disillusioning experience, one can be forgiven some wariness regarding reports about the more recently deceased Cheetah (with an ‘h’). Reports of his death have also generally sourced the primate sanctuary where he was kept, just as had been the case with no-‘h’ Cheeta. I’m going to wait for a more detailed investigation before beginning my own grieving.

Update: Other Cheetah skeptics have come forward. The New York Times’s Arts Beat blog has amended its post with a quote from Lincoln Park Zoo chimp expert Dr. Steve Ross, who finds the story “very improbable”:

“To live into your 70s is really pushing the limits of chimp biology,” Dr. Ross said in a telephone interview. “Eighty is tough to swallow.”

The Associated Press has updated its article as well, with a comment from the aforementioned Cheeta debunker R.D. Rosen. Rosen says that the Cheetah story looks like a “business-boosting impostor as well”:

“I’m afraid any chimp who actually shared a soundstage with Weissmuller and O’Sullivan is long gone,” Rosen said.