Chimp-gate: 7 Developments in the Cheetah Death Conspiracy

Cheeta Tarzan the Ape Man 1933- H 2011
Everett Collection

Cheeta Tarzan the Ape Man 1933- H 2011

As primatologists shake their heads at claims the "Tarzan" star could have lived to 80, the late ape's caretakers fire back at "unfair" disputes.

Mourning over the death of Tarzan star Cheetah quickly gave way to skepticism on Wednesday, when reports of the 80-year-old chimpanzee's demise were followed by questions over the validity of the animal's resume.

However old he was, scientists said any chimp that starred in the 1930s films alongside Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan couldn't have lived until 2011. But the animal's caretakers at the Florida sanctuary where he died of kidney failure after 60 years on site say that their claims are absolutely true.

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And with so many voices chiming in, skepticism has now turned into confusion. So to clear the air, here are 7 key developments since news of Cheetah's passing first broke:

1. The media recalled another fake "Cheeta"
After initial reports of Cheetah's death, many pointed to the 2008 incident of a purportedly 75-year-old retired "Cheeta" living in Palm Springs. His caretaker's claims were later proven false when it was learned that the transatlantic flight that brought the ape over to Hollywood from Africa to make the film didn't exist in 1932.

2. Experts question Cheetah's age
A scientist told The New York Times that the likelihood the chimpanzee that died in Florida was the same as one from the Tarzan films is "very improbable." “To live into your 70s is really pushing the limits of chimp biology," said Dr. Steve Ross. "Eighty is tough to swallow.”

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3. A Cheetah biographer raises his brow
Buoyed by the sensational claims about the 2008 "Cheeta," British writer James Lever wrote a mock biography about the apes of the Tarzan franchise, Me Cheeta. Upon hearing the news of the latest Cheetah's death, he spoke of the poor documentation about the animals that participated in the franchise. "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."

4. Another Tarzan expert chimes in
Writer R.D. Rosen, who debunked the story of the first fake chimp, chimed in on the matter in an email to the AP. He referred to the latest chimp as a "business-boosting impostor" and said that "any chimp who actually shared a soundstage with Weissmuller and O'Sullivan is long gone."

5. Cheetah's documentation reported as destroyed
Before making a complete statement in defense of their chimp, Suncoast Primate Sanctuary outreach director Debbie Cobb admitted that there was no official documentation proving that her Cheetah was actually in the films. But there used to be. "Unfortunately, there was a fire in `95 in which a lot of that documentation burned up," Cobb said. "I'm 51 and I've known him for 51 years. My first remembrance of him coming here was when I was actually 5, and I've known him since then, and he was a full-grown chimp then."

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6. Robert Osbourne offers perspective
Film historian and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osbourne sounded off on why, 80 years later, the public still cares about these chimps -- fake or not. "He was a major star," said Osbourne, comparing him to Rin Tin Tin. " [He] was one of the things people loved about the Tarzan movies because he made people laugh. He was always a regular fun part of the movies."

7. Cheetah's caretaker fires back
To the people who don't believe the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary's story about Cheetah, Cobb doesn't really care. “I’m sad to hear that people are questioning that," she told The New York Times, disputing claims that chimpanzees can't live to 80. "We have nothing to prove... It cracks me up how ignorant some people are, but I think that causes controversy, and isn’t that what it’s all about? I mean, really. I think people like controversy. These are real living beings to us here. These are relationships. We don’t care if it’s in the media or not.”