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World's Oldest Primate



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World's Oldest Living Primate

Cheeta is the most famous and beloved chimpanzee of all, bringing great joy and affording millions of people all over the world the chance to re-live many wonderful childhood memories of watching and playing “Tarzan and Cheeta”.  He is one of the many chimpanzees to play the sidekick to actor Johnny Weissmuller, legendary Tarzan, in the 1930s-1960s films.  Cheeta’s role in these films was to provide comic relief, convey messages between Tarzan and his allies, and occasionally lead Tarzan's other animal friends to the ape-man's rescue. 

This legendary old man was added to the Guinness Book of World Records in 2001 for being the world’s oldest living non-human primate.  There is some speculation as to exactly how old he is, but he is believed to be in his late 70s, which is quite elderly since the lifespan of a chimpanzee in the wild is 40-60 yearsCheeta was honored with a star on the Walk of Stars in Palm Springs, CA on March 31st, 1995.  Since 2004 there have been several unsuccessful campaigns to secure a star for Cheeta on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the effort is being continued to this day.  Both the International Comedy Festival in Spain and Canada’s Space Channel have bestowed him with Lifetime Achievement Awards.

Cheeta’s story is unique and touching. Years ago Tony Gentry, was in the entertainment industry and worked as an animal trainer. Fortunately, he was a kind man and treated his animals well. He acquired Cheeta as a baby to be used in the movies and raised him for his whole life.  They became like father and son.  When Tony became terminally ill in the late 1980s, he knew Cheeta, his best friend, would outlive him. He was terrified that he would be sent to a laboratory or run down zoo or circus. Believing Cheeta would face a horrible future, Tony ordered him to be euthanized upon his death.  This was not out of cruelty, but because he loved Cheeta so much that he couldn’t stand the thought of his mistreatment or possible torture.  

Dan Westfall, Tony’s nephew,  pleaded with his uncle for many years to let him become Cheeta’s guardian instead. He promised his Uncle Tony he would give him a long, happy and fulfilled life. Tony repeatedly said "no!"  It took a long time to convince him to turn Cheeta over but finally he conceded and said his tearful goodbyes to his best friend before he passed away.  Dan promised his uncle he would care for the ape, and to this day, that's what he does.  They share a relationship and special bond that is like no other.

For over 20 years Cheeta has been living out his retirement with Dan at the C.H.E.E.T.A. (Creative Habitats and Enrichment for Endangered and Threatened Apes) Primate Sanctuary in Palm Springs, CA.  Cheeta’s name was adopted for the sanctuary to draw attention to animals used in the entertainment industry which were sometimes abused or even killed during there tenures as show props.  C.H.E.E.T.A exists to provide surviving animals, who often outlive their usefulness in the industry, with a good home. 

Cheeta the Chimp is the worldwide Ambassador Chimpanzee for conservation efforts and the welfare of all primates.  He represents all the chimpanzees who have appeared as "Cheeta" in the numerous Hollywood Tarzan movies, as well as his other animal friends in the entertainment industry, and those in the wild. 

The plight of retired show-business chimpanzees is terribly grim.  Often they outlive their entertainment careers by forty years or more.  When they reach 6-8 years old they become very strong and can be difficult to handle.  A full-grown chimp can have five to six times the strength of a human.   Most end up in sad, isolated situations or worse.  Usually the performers are discarded, and it is becoming more and more difficult to place them in sanctuaries that are full or suffering from financial crisis.  Ex-performers are usually not accepted by zoos, so unless a home is found for them at a sanctuary, they end up in roadside zoos, as medical test subjects, or euthanized.  

Chimpanzee research in the United States began in the 1920s.  Research labs are where the largest part of the chimps in America are located.  Because their DNA is the closest of all animals to the human species, they are considered the best subjects for medical study.  Most of these poor animals live in cages for their entire lives undergoing torture and discomfort.  Few of them ever get to feel grass or see the blue sky.  The wild chimpanzees, an endangered species native to Africa, are declining in number due to the illegal bushmeat crisis, exotic pet trade, de-forestation, disease and armed conflict.    

Cheeta is one of the lucky ones who’s had a fulfilling life full of love. He’s the exception to the rule.  Despite battling Type 2 Diabetes and mild arthritis for the past 12 years, Cheeta is in great shape for a primate of his age.  His diet consists of lots of fruit, vegetables and monkey chow.  He also enjoys the occasional hamburger or hot dog and loves to go for rides in the car with Dan to visit McDonald’s drive-thru.  His favorite drinks are iced tea and diet coke.  

This four foot, one hundred and fifty pound primate is bursting with personality and charm.  He enjoys, playing the piano, painting, watching television, going for walks, riding in the car, looking at pictures in magazines and waiving to the tourists who stop in front of the Casa de Cheeta to catch a glimpse of him.  He’s quite the talk of the town! 

Cheeta spends much of his time painting beautiful “Apestracts” in bright colors.  His work has been shown in the National Museum of London and is owned by his fans all over the world.   Many of them are sold to raise money for various charitable causes. His dear friend, world-renowned conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall, recently auctioned two of Cheeta's apestracts for $10,000 each to help the chimpanzee conservation efforts of the Gombe National Park in Africa.  This legendary and joyful old man will go down in history and continue to warm the hearts of millions around the world for years to come.  He is a true icon. 

Article & Images by Christina Bush

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