Death of ‘Cheetah’ the Chimp Called Into Question

Dec 29, 2011 4:45pm
Me Tarzan. You Cheetah?
Last week the world, nay the universe, mourned the loss of Cheetah, the perpetually grinning chimp sidekick starring in the Tarzan films of 1930s.
But then, just as quickly, ape experts went from rending their clothes to scratching their heads.

First, Debbie Cobb, the outreach director of the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Fla., who claimed to own the real Cheetah, said the chimp was 80 years old when he died of kidney failure at the sanctuary on Christmas Eve.

Not possible, cried ape experts.

“Captive chimpanzees typically live in their 30s, 40s or, sometimes, even their 50s and 60s,” Dr. Steve Ross, assistant director for the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Ill., told ABC News.

R.D. Rosen, a writer who debunked the claim of another Cheetah-claiming chimp in a 2008 Washington Post article, told the Associated Press in an email Wednesday that the chimp the Suncoast Sanctuary claims was Cheetah looks like a “business-boosting impostor.”

Indeed, next to the announcement of Cheetah’s death on the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary website is a donation tab accepting most credit cards.

“I’m afraid any chimp who actually shared a sound stage with Weissmuller and O’Sullivan is long gone,” Rosen wrote to the AP.

But Cobb is sticking by her story, insisting hers was the original Cheetah that starred alongside American Olympic gold medal swimmer Johnny Weissmuller – he of the warbling primal call and skimpy loin cloth in the series of films about a man raised by apes in Africa.

Cobb claims her grandparents acquired Cheetah around 1960 from Weissmuller, who lived in nearby Ocala, and that the chimp  was one of multiple cheetahs that appeared in Tarzan films between 1932 and 1934.

Cobb, who in interviews after his death described Cheetah as outgoing and tuned into human feelings, said on Wednesday that paperwork that could prove the chimp’s authenticity, however, does not exist.

“Unfortunately, there was a fire in ’95 in which a lot of that documentation burned up,” Cobb told the Associated Press. “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.”

Cobb recalled that the Cheetah she knew loved fingerpainting and football and was soothed by nondenominational Christian music.

“He was very outgoing, very personable, he loved women,” she said.

But the real Cheetah was not-so-affectionately known as “that bastard” by Tarzan’s perennial babe, Jane.

Back in the 1930s, the  role belonged to Maureen O’Sullivan, the mother of actress Mia Farrow, who recalled her mom’s feelings towards the chimp in a post on Twitter.

“My mom, Tarzan’s Jane, referred to Cheetah-the-chimp as ‘that bastard’ – saying he bit her at every opportunity,” she wrote.

The Suncoast Sanctuary’s website says a public remembrance ceremony for the chimp will be held this Saturday, Dec. 31.

The website also includes a space for visitors to write their memories of Cheetah.

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