Cheetah the Chimp Died in Florida, But There's Little Evidence He Was Actually in Tarzan Movies

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To hear the story repeated from fine bastions of journalism like the New York Times, NPR, and CNN, you'd be lead to believe that the chimpanzee who played Cheetah, Tarzan's ape companion in the famed 1930s movie series, recently died in an animal sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Florida. Don't believe everything you read because there's actually little to no evidence that this chimp ever starred alongside Tarzan.

The story originated from The Tampa Tribune. Yes, a chimpanzee who lived at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor Florida died. Yes, his caretakers believe that he starred in the famed early 1930s Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller. No, there's little evidence backing it up.

  • The sanctuary claims that Cheetah was 80, which would have made him old enough to have appeared in the films. Chimpanzees rarely live more than 35 years in the wild, and even in captivity they don't often make it past 45 years. There's no evidence of any chimp who has actually lived 80 properly documented years. To imagine that world's longest living chimp just also happened to have been a movie star is a hard pill to swallow.
  • Several chimps were used to play the role of Cheetah in the Tarzan films, but the most famous was Jiggs. He died back in 1938. Jiggs seems to be the only animal actor whose role in the films has been established thoroughly.
  • The Tribune reports that "Sometime around 1960, Cheetah came to the sanctuary from Weissmuller's estate in Ocala." Johnny Weissmuller, the actor who played Tarzan in the '30s, was, well an actor. We can't find any readily available evidence that he privately owned any chimpanzees, let alone his co-stars. For that matter we can't find any evidence he owned an estate in Ocala. Yes, several scenes for the series were filmed in nearby Silver Springs, Florida, but Weissmuller was living in a posh Bel Aire mansion during his Hollywood heydays.
  • Weissmuller did move to Florida in the '60s, but he lived in Fort Lauderdale (where he helped establish the International Swimming Hall of Fame). During this time he also had some involvement in developing a Titusville, Florida, tourist trap known as Tropical Wonderland or Tarzan's Jungleland. It eventually closed in 1973. Is it possible this Cheetah came from Weissmuller's tourist trap and not his actual movies?
  • Back in 2008, the Washington Post exposed another supposed ex-Tarzan movie star ape as a fraud. The story makes a passing reference to this Cheetah, "In fact, there was another, less well publicized Cheeta in Palm Harbor, Fla., who was also said to be in his 70s and a veteran of Weissmuller movies. But that's another story." It may be another story, but they are strikingly similar.


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Update: This clipping of an ad for Weissmuller's 1960 Tropical Wonderland park from a tribute site does indeed confirm that there was a chimpanzee performing under the name of Cheeta at the tourist attraction. Advertising for Florida tourist traps are notoriously inaccurate, so do we believe this chimp actually came from the Tarzan movies?  He does look quite young here. Then again we have no evidence either that this "Cheeta" is also the recently deceased "Cheetah." Suncoast claims they received their Cheetah "around 1960" and Wonderland didn't close until 1973. Still, there does appear to have been a few chimps claiming to be Tarzan's Cheeta floating around Florida at the time. 

Update 2: Suncoast Primate Sanctuary has sort of a strange history of its own. Once known as "Noell's Ark Chimp Farm," it was forced to close to the public for over a decade after PETA attacked the conditions the animals lived in. The St. Pete Times claims that the property wasn't even officially opened as an attraction until 19710. This report from RoadsideAmerica.com "from the 1990s" mentions that the oldest chimp at the sanctuary at the time was a 53-year-old named Johnny. If Cheetah was 80 at his passing, he would have been in his late 50's or 60's during the '90s, much older than Johnny. 

This isn't to say that anyone at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary is actively promoting a fraud, or that the animal's death is any less sad. The story probably got passed down, slowly changed over time, to the point where no one ever questioned that this Cheetah was the Cheeta from the movies. Memories a funny thing.

Hell, I've already convinced myself that I've actually "met" this particular Cheetah. I do remember my aunt, who lives in Clearwater, close by to Palm Harbor, taking me to a primate sanctuary in the area as a kid. The pictures of Suncoast Primate Sanctuary do look strikingly similar to my memory. I mean, how many primate sanctuary could there possible be in Tampa Bay? Sure, I guess I could call up my aunt to verify, but why would I want to risk tarnishing a good story, and why would the staff at Suncoast want to tarnish there's despite a lot of obvious circumstantial evidence suggesting its false.

Whether this Cheetah ever appeared in Tarzan or not, lets pour one out for the old chimp.



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6 comments
guest
guest

Wow Kyle breaking news...i need the 3 minutes of my life back from reading that

Chris Muss
Chris Muss

Memory's, not memories a funny thing.

Geoff Paugam
Geoff Paugam

Gregoire lived to be 62 years old and died in 2008.  The average lifespan in America about 70 years but how many live past that?  Who is to say that our genetically related cousins can't do the same?

Polly  King
Polly King

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Gerry L
Gerry L

"This clipping of an ad for Weissmuller's 1960 Tropical Wonderland" that purports to picture a chimp ... sorry. That is not a chimp. It's a young gorilla. Another miss.

Neil Warren
Neil Warren

There has never been a single chimp ever known to live to 80.  This story is nothing more than a publicity stunt.

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