'Cheetah' Death Reignites Lingering Debate Over Identity of 'Tarzan' Chimpanzees

Cheeta Tarzan the Ape Man 1933- H 2011
Everett Collection

Cheeta Tarzan the Ape Man 1933- H 2011

Experts call it "improbable" that a chimpanzee live to 80, making this the second Tarzan primate suspected of being a fake.

Like Rin Tin Tin, Lassie and most famous animal characters, Cheeta (or "Cheetah") was not played by one single chimpanzee.

The role of Tarzan's primate sidekick was assumed by over a dozen different chimps over the course of the film franchise's history. But unlike animal actors of other species, the history of this one ape has been loosely documented at best.

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One chimp said to play Cheetah in the early 1930s died at a Florida sanctuary on Saturday. After the initial story from The Tampa Tribune, which featured an interview with a caretaker, contradictory reports are emerging saying that 80 is unrealistically old for a chimpanzee -- famous or otherwise.

The New York Times cites Dr. Steve Ross, the assistant director at Chicago's Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes.

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

He concluded that it's "very improbable" that a chimpanzee who acted in 1932 would still be alive in 2011, adding that the oldest documented age of any living chimpanzee is just 70. And that's a female. The male, Keo at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, is only approaching 53.

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Ross says the difficult-to-track nature of acting chimps has made it hard to study how their unusual circumstances may have affected their lifespans.

“I’ve spent a couple years now trying to track down some of these chimps,” he said, “and it more often than not leads to a dead end.”

This Cheetah is not first of the Tarzan chimps to raise eyebrows. In 2008, a purportedly 75-year-old retired "Cheeta" living in Palm Springs was proven to be a fake. The bizarre, fictional ordeal of his journey from Liberia to Hollywood in 1932, was used to debunk his identity. It was also fodder for the 2009 mock-autobiography, Me Cheeta.

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British writer James Lever, who wrote the book lampooning the Cheeta myth, sounded off on the death of this latest ape to The Guardian.

"Nobody seems to know very much (or even anything at all) about the chimps who played Cheeta," he said. "I rather think he'll be dying a lot over the next few years."

The most-documented Cheeta was named Jiggs. He originated the role in the 1932 film Tarzan the Ape Man, before dying from pneumonia in 1932.