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R.I.P. Cheeta the chimp (1931-2011)

Updated on December 31, 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.

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    • Robwrite profile image
      Author

      Rob 6 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi Seeker; I agree with you. They should all be allowed to live free in the wild. Unfortunately, there is less wilds every year for them to live in.

      Thanks for stopping by,

      Rob

    • Seeker7 profile image

      Helen Murphy Howell 6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

      Great hub and more great memories.

      I think Cheeta/Jiggs must be one of the later stunt chimps, just thinking about it logically. But who cares! Chimpanzees are one of the most stunning and awesome animals on the planet - and although I would much prefer that we didn't seem them acting or singing, but in the jungle where they are happiest - the memories of watching Cheeta on screen are magical.

      Voted up!

    • Robwrite profile image
      Author

      Rob 6 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi Bruce; It's too bad Cheeta wasn't one of those apes who learned sign language. He could just have signed "Yes, I was with Johnny" or "No, I'm a fake!".

      Always a pleasure, Bruce,

      Rob

    • Cogerson profile image

      UltimateMovieRankings 6 years ago from Virginia

      I am shocked that there is no way to check Cheeta's DNA record from the chimp that passed with the chimp that was in the Johnny Weissmuller movies. They should send either the Las Vegas CSI or Miami CSI teams out there to determine if he was real or an imposter.....lol. Assuming he was the real Cheeta it is amazing that he survived this long. Thanks for the tribute to him.

    • Robwrite profile image
      Author

      Rob 6 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi H.H.; It is amazing, isn't it. Most humans don't even live that long.

      Great to hear from you,

      Rob

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

      I read in the paper that he died. Amazing 80 years old.

    • Robwrite profile image
      Author

      Rob 6 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi Alastar; I remember that scene. That was supposed to be Cheeta's mother who got trampled by the Rhino in "Tarzan and his mate". She was the larger Cheeta who also appeared in the first film in the series, "Tarzan the Ape Man". The little chimp that Jane consoles was the famous Cheeta who appeared in all the subsequent Tarzan films.

      I'm sure no one there imagined at the time that the little chimp on the set was going to outlive everyone else.

      Thanks for stopping by,

      Rob

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Tarzan and his Mate had the scene where Cheetah saved Jane from the charging Rhino only to get mowed down himself but recover. Makes me wonder if anyone on that MGM set had any idea Cheetah would probably out-live all of them. Cool subject and nice mini bio on the Chimp Rob.

    • Robwrite profile image
      Author

      Rob 6 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi Steve; If it isn't the genuine article, let's consider this a belated goodbye to the first cheeta.

      Thanks for commentng,

      Rob

    • Robwrite profile image
      Author

      Rob 6 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi Flora; I agree. If it is true that this isn't the original, he was still one of the 'stunt chimps' and he's lived a long time, so he deserves a nice send-off.

      Thanks for stopping by, Flora,

      Rob

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      Ungowa!! Hmmm I'm suspicious that this is the same chimpanzee used in the classic Weismuller Tarzans 100 years ago, there is no real proof we only have that guys word for it. The real Cheeta probably died way back in the 50's. RIP real Cheeta.

      Interesting news Rob.

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 6 years ago

      I heard about this on the news. I don't care if he was the original Cheeta or not. He was still in the classic Tarzan films either way.

    • Robwrite profile image
      Author

      Rob 6 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi Dahoglund; Cheeta surprised a lot of people with his longevity. 80 years is a good run for a person, let alone a chimp.

      Thanks for commenting,

      Rob

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I am old enough to remember seeing a lot of those old Tarzan films. I had no idea that Cheetah lived so long.

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