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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.

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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