R.I.P. Cheeta the chimp (1931-2011)
Cheeta (left) Tarzan (Center) and Jane (right)
Cheeta at the Piano in his sanctuary home in Florida
Cheeta with a photo from his glory days
The world's oldest primate has passed away at 80
Fans of old Tarzan films will know the name Cheeta the Chimpanzee. Cheeta was the popular simian sidekick to jungle hero Tarzan in a series of films in the 1930s-50s. He first appeared alongside Johnny Weissmuller, an olympic swimmer-turned-movie star (Weissmuller was the most popular of the big-screen Tarzans) in Tarzan and his Mate (1934) the second film in the franchise. He would outlast (and eventually outlive) Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan (who played Jane) and remain with the series through several Tarzan actors. Cheeta was very popular with kids who attended the Tarzan films. The Cheeta character was created for the films, and never appeared in any of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels.
Cheeta--who's given name is Mr. Jiggs--retired from acting in the 60s, although he made a last appearance in Dr. Doolittle (1967). Cheeta/Mr. Jiggs has lived since the 1960s in the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor Florida. At first, Cheeta/Jiggs didn't like his new home and threw things at people but eventually settled in and became very friendly and affectionate to everyone. Cheeta/Jiggs learned how to finger-paint.(These were called 'ape-stract' paintings.) He would laugh whenever he heard anyone else laugh.
Born approximately 1931, he was discovered in Africa in April 1932. The chimp's longevity has amazed everyone. In 2005, Cheeta/Jiggs was declared the oldest living primate in history by the Guinness Book of World Records. Chimps in captivity regularly live between 35-45 years, rarely ever reaching 50. Cheeta/Jiggs died on Christmas Eve 2011 of kidney failure.
In recent years, there has been some controversy as to whether or not Jiggs was indeed the original Chimp of the Tarzan films. When he came to the primate habitat in the 60s, Tony Gentry, Cheeta's long-time trainer in films, claimed that he was the original Cheeta, but some dispute this. There were several 'stunt chimps' who replaced the regular Cheeta in performing specific tricks, some of whom were born as late as the 1950s. There is a suspicion by some that the Cheeta who came to the Sun-coast sanctuary was one of those , making him about 25 years younger than his official 80 years (If true, that would make him about 55, which is impressive but not a record.) Since there is no DNA available from the Cheeta of the 1930s to test for sure, we can only take Gentry's word that the Chimpanzee he delivered to the Santuary was the genuine article.
In 2008, a tell-all spoof autobiography was written by 'Cheeta' (actually by James Lever) called Me Cheeta! . Cheeta was once voted the most popular chimp in history.
So rest-in-peace, Cheeta/Jiggs. You'll be swinging through the trees in that big jungle in the sky from now on.