Goodbye Cheetah: Tarzan's sidekick – or fraud of the jungle?

Hollywood mourns Cheetah the chimpanzee. But could a chimp have lived to the age of 80?

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He had a difficult relationship with several of his Hollywood co-stars, biting some of them and throwing his own faeces at others. But 1930s cinema audiences were thrilled by Cheetah the chimpanzee, the sidekick to Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan, whose death on Christmas Eve was announced yesterday.

The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Florida, where he was enjoying his retirement, reported "with great sadness" that Cheetah died from kidney failure at the age of 80.

The community had "lost a dear friend and family member", it added.

The chimp starred in Tarzan and His Mate in 1932 and Tarzan the Ape Man, two years later. He appeared alongside former Olympic swimmer Weissmuller, who died in 1984, and Maureen O'Sullivan, mother of Mia Farrow, who died in 1998.

However, doubt was immediately cast on whether he was in fact Cheetah the film star, with primate specialists pointing out that chimps held in captivity rarely live beyond 50.

Dr Alison Cronin, director of Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre in Dorset, said: "There is an awful lot of speculation about Cheetah and whether it is the right one. I don't believe it." She said most chimps in the wild only lived into their 30s. "When they get old they really look it. The one I saw did not look 80." Others speculated that several different chimps were used in the 1930s films.

Suncoast's outreach director Debbie Cobb said Cheetah had loved finger painting and American football, enjoyed making people laugh and was "very in tune to human feelings". The ape arrived at the sanctuary in about 1960, coming from Weissmuller's estate, Ms Cobb claimed. "He was very compassionate. He could tell if I was having a good day or a bad day. He was always trying to get me to laugh if he thought I was having a bad day," she told the Tampa Tribune.

However, sanctuary volunteer Ron Priest said that when he did not like somebody or something "he would pick up some poop and throw it at them", adding: "He could get you at 30 feet, with bars in between."

Mia Farrow wrote on Twitter that her mother had invariably referred to Cheetah as "that bastard" due to his habit of biting her.

Whether this was the real Cheetah or not, tributes to the primate poured in yesterday. John Mackay said: "You always made us laugh at your antics and be sad when you were sad. You will live forever in our hearts." Helene from Virginia said she "grew up watching the Tarzan movies with Cheetah. Cheetah made all us children smile and laugh."

Yet there is a dark side to using chimps in entertainment. Dr Cronin said that the fame of Cheetah and Michael Jackson's chimp Bubbles had fuelled a world smuggling trade in the animals.

"Almost all chimps in Monkey World have been rescued from some form of entertainment," she said.

Me Cheeta: In his 'own' words

In 2008 James Lever wrote Me Cheeta, the ape's "autobiography" and a behind-the-scenes romp through Hollywood's Golden Age:

On Johnny Weissmuller "I remember we were both up for the role of Terry in On the Waterfront and the casting director told Johnny he was wasting his time. I got a callback but it came to nothing."

On Maureen O'Sullivan "She couldn't even act affection for animals, although, to be wholly honest and give the harmless old trout her due, it was probably just me she disliked."

On fame "Picture a human and a chimpanzee facing each other in awkward silence... the faint inanity of the interaction stealing over both of them. That's what fame is."

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