Cheetah the Chimp Death Hoax?

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Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, You Decide

Cheetah the chimp is dead? Maybe not
by Bryan Alexander
December 27, 2011

Cheetah the chimpanzee is dead. But whether the suddenly celebrated primate really was the co-star in Johnny Weissmuller’s classic Tarzan films will remain a Hollywood mystery.

On Christmas Eve, Cheetah died of kidney failure at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Fla., setting off a flurry of international headlines mourning the loss. Debbie Cobb, 51, the sanctuary’s outreach director, claims that the chimp was a stunning 80 years old and had been the star of the 1930s Tarzan movies.

Many are skeptical.

“You do understand that this chimpanzee could not possibly have been in these Tarzan films,” says R.D. Rosen, author of a 2008 Washington Post article titled “Lie of the Jungle,” which debunked the authenticity of a different chimpanzee that had been dubbed the original Cheetah. “The idea that this Cheetah could have appeared in these films, had this long career, and now had this wonderful retirement is ridiculous.”

Many chimpanzees filled the role of Cheetah, but the main sticking point against Cobb’s primate is his age. Steve Ross, the chimpanzee expert at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, chuckles at the notion of a chimp octogenarian. According to his detailed files, the current record holder is in her early 70s.

“To say 80 is really pushing it. In this record, there has never been a chimp that has lived that long,” Ross says. “I’d paint myself as skeptical in this case.”

But Cobb stands by her claim, adding that by the time Cheetah was passed to her grandparents Bob and Mae Noell in the 1960s (they ran a chimp farm), he was an adult with a movie pedigree.

“He was always such an outgoing guy, the first to greet you in the morning,” says Cobb, who grew up around Cheetah.

Dan Westfall, the owner of the chimpanzee at the center of Rosen’s lengthy Post exposé, concedes that the truth can be murky in Hollywood.

“After Mr. Rosen did his research, we found that we really don’t know,”
Westfall says. Despite his chimp’s career being called into question, both he and his animal have a star on Palm Springs’ Walk of Fame. Rosen is writing his side of the tale in a just-finished book called Chump.

“The interesting thing is what it says about humans that adore stories about these animals,” Rosen says. “It makes us feel young if the Tarzan chimp is still living. Then we really cannot be that old. It’s a way of shaving some years off our lives.”