Cheeta, a chimpanzee who retired to Palm Springs after a supposedly illustrious career in “Tarzan” films but whose Hollywood bonafides were later cast into doubt, died Thursday, said his owner, Dan Westfall.
The primate lived with Westfall at a home on East Francis Road in the Racquet Club Estates neighborhood that Westfall set up as an animal sanctuary called Casa de Cheeta. In addition to Cheeta, over the years, the facility has been home to another chimpanzee, Jeeter, and other exotic animals.
For years, Cheeta was billed as the star of numerous “Tarzan” films and other movies, concluding with 1967’s “Dr. Dolittle.” He supposedly worked alongside actors Johnny Weissmuller, Ronald Reagan and Rex Harrison in his heyday.
Cheeta received a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars in 1995. Westfall received one nearby in 2010.
Jane Goodall, the renowned primate researcher, visited Cheeta in Palm Springs in 2006, and he was featured in People Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and other national publications. Westfall’s home is filled with memorabilia about Cheeta, and tourists would often visit the home/sanctuary.
The chimp spent his later years swinging on play equipment in the backyard, listening to music and watching TV at the Francis Road property. He also was reinvented as a “Primate Picasso,” with his painted artworks selling for over $100 each, with proceeds benefitting a 501(c) 3 that Westfall set up to benefit the sanctuary.
“I had him here with me for 31 years and 5 days,” a tearful Westfall said Monday. “He was a bright light in my life, and now that light has gone out. It happens to all of us.”
Westfall noted that Cheeta had coped for years with health issues including diabetes, and Westfall had taken his blood daily and administered insulin and monitored his blood pressure. Westfall said he made the difficult decision to euthanize Cheeta last week after he became unable to walk and appeared to have suffered a stroke.
“He wasn’t a pet. He was something special. He was damn near like a person and he loved meeting people,” Westfall said. “It’s a big loss to me, but I believe in God and know he’s in the light.”
How Cheeta came to Palm Springs
According to Westfall, he became Cheeta’s guardian after his uncle, Tony Gentry, a Hollywood animal trainer, became unable to care for him and died in 1991. It was Gentry, Westfall said, who had told him about Cheeta’s Hollywood career.
But after Westfall approached author Richard Rosen in 2007 to write the chimp’s biography, and Rosen started researching the chimp’s backstory, he says he found inconsistencies that made him doubt the story that the chimp starred in the “Tarzan” films.
“I, like everyone else in this story, really wanted to believe it,” Rosen told The Desert Sun in 2009.
For instance, in old magazine and press clippings, Rosen found an oft-repeated tale about Gentry smuggling Cheeta out of Liberia in diapers under his coat on a Pan Am flight in 1932. But Rosen found the airline didn’t offer that flight until 1939. .
Cheeta’s age became the subject of debate as well.
In 2004, Westfall said the chimp was 72. That would have made him 35 when he finished “Dr. Dolittle” — far older than the retirement age of a normal chimp actor. The animals typically were retired around age 8 or 9 because they become too aggressive during puberty.
Rosen told The Desert Sun he spent hours reviewing “Tarzan” films and comparing the image with a photo of Westfall’s chimp. He concluded that there was “not one bit of proof … that this chimp was in any of the ‘Tarzan’ movies.”
After that, the book project fell apart and Westfall changed the language on his sanctuary’s website.
“Uncle Tony told Dan that Cheeta was one of the original chimps starring in ‘Tarzan’ movies from the 1930s and 1940s. Several years ago, Dan started working with a writer on Cheeta’s biography. Dan wanted someone to tell the story of Cheeta’s life as the world’s oldest chimpanzee and as one of the original chimpanzees appearing in the old ‘Tarzan’ movies,” Westfall said on the site.
“By December 2007, the writer’s research had unexpectedly revealed that our Cheeta is unlikely to be as old as we’d thought, although he is clearly old. It is also difficult to determine which movies our Cheeta may have been in.”
Cheeta for years was touted by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest living non-human primate.
“We thought we knew how old (Cheeta) was, and how many movies he’d been in,” Westfall told The Desert Sun in 2011. “After some research, I can’t say anymore, because we don’t really know I think my uncle kind of stretched the truth to the media. He was typically Hollywood.”
That year, confusion briefly ensued when a Florida sanctuary announced that its chimpanzee — Cheetah, with an H — who was also billed as the chimpanzee sidekick in the “Tarzan” movies, had died at age 80. Westfall had to fend off calls from people who thought it was his chimp who had died.
The Florida chimpanzee supposedly came to the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary from Weissmuller’s estate sometime around 1960.
Cheeta was ‘ambassador’
Although Cheeta’s Tinsletown resume came into question, Westfall said the chimpanzee still stood for something: With modern computer graphics and other technology, Hollywood doesn’t need to use live primates in films these days.
“My Cheeta was the ambassador for all the chimps in the ‘Tarzan’ movies” that had to endure working in Hollywood, Westfall said Monday. “He’s the ambassador for all the chimps that should no longer be used in the motion picture business.”
Westfall said he was going to have Cheeta taxidermied, with plans to exhibit him at a natural history museum in Riverside. He was inspired, he said, by Roy Rogers, who had his horse Trigger mounted in a similar fashion.
Westfall said his other chimpanzee, Jeeter, went to live at a Los Angeles sanctuary several years ago, and recently was moved to a different facility in Florida.
He said he doesn’t plan to take on any new exotic animals at his sanctuary in Palm Springs.
“It’s the end of an era,” he said. “This world is a little less wonderful without Cheeta.”