28 Dec 2011

‘Tarzan’s chimpanzee’ Cheetah dies

Cheetah the chimpanzee, one of the stars of the Tarzan films, has died of kidney failure aged 80. Asha Tanna looks back on his life.

Iconic chimpanzee Cheetah dies (Getty)

He was the adorable comic sidekick that the camera loved. An outgoing and mischievous character who rose to stardom during Hollywood’s golden age.

But this Christmas was to be his last and on Saturday Cheetah, the iconic chimpanzee star from the 1930’s Tarzan films, died of kidney failure age 80.

Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) are part of the great ape family and can live up to 50 years old in captivity, ten years longer than those in the wild. It’s not clear what lay behind Cheetah’s longevity but his age is certainly an anomaly.

Chimpanzees are an endangered species. Their numbers are shrinking in at least three African countries and they are fast approaching extinction due to deforestation, hunting pressures and the illegal pet trade. These apes are highly social primates and live in large troops. Conservationists say for every infant taken for the illegal pet trade, at least ten others have died trying to protect it.

Chimpanzees are so closely related to man we could accept a blood transfusion from them, as we share almost 99 per cent of our DNA with them.

But Cheetah’s life was not destined to be lived in the wild. He is believed to have been “discovered” as an infant by an animal trainer on a trip to Africa in April 1932 – shortly after he began appearing in films alongside the American Olympic gold medal swimmer Jonny Weissmuller and co-star Maureen O’Sullivan. He was one of four chimpanzees used in the films in 1934.

Life of stardom

Cheetah’s character was a product of the film studio MGM. There was no chimpanzee featured in the Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs that the films were based on. His final role was as Chee-Chee in 1967’s Doctor Dolittle.

Cheetah, also known as Jiggs or Cheeta, appeared in 50 movies before his final appearance. Following on from films such as Tarzan, chimpanzees have also been used in TV adverts, such as the PG Tips tea. In the US, many chimpanzees are also kept as pets where it is legal in some states. It’s illegal in the UK.

According to Debbie Cobb, the spokeswoman of the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor in Florida, where Cheetah lived since 1960, he loved finger-painting, watching American football and was “soothed by Christian music”.

Chimpanzees are so closely related to man we could accept a blood transfusion from them, as we share almost 99 per cent of our DNA with them. And, like us, if exposed to alcohol and cigarettes they will experience the same effects. Cheetah himself was partial to drinking and smoking – both of which were forbidden at the sanctuary when he arrived. Staff said he had many talents and was also known to walk upright (bi-pedal). Chimpanzees usually knuckle-walk on all fours and occasionally stand on two legs.

Like most retired movie stars he could be a diva. A volunteer at the sanctuary Ron Priest told the Tampa Tribune: “When he didn’t like somebody or something that was going on, he would pick up some poop and throw it at them. He could get you at 30 feet [9m] with bars in between.”

Asha Tanna is a freelance reporter for Channel 4 News. She is also studying for an MRes in primatology at Roehampton University.