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Cheeta Speaks

He's outlived them all. Tarzan. Trigger. Ronald Reagan. Now, retired in Palm Springs, the world's oldest chimp gets some stuff off his chest.

April 22, 2007|J.R. Moehringer | J.R. Moehringer is a senior writer for West.

What can I say--I'm a star. That's why this guy's staring at me, right? I seem familiar, and not just because I did 50 movies, including those classic "Tarzan" flicks of the 1930s. Maybe he saw me on one of the morning shows. Maybe he read about me in Guinness World Records--oldest living chimpanzee. Or maybe he recognizes me in a way he can't quite put into words?

Whatever, I know why he's here. I just celebrated my 75th birthday, which is a flat-out miracle for a chimp. In the wild we rarely reach 40. In captivity 50 is a feat. So I'm like the Methuselah of Monkeys. The George Burns of Hollywood Apes.

More important, I'm one of the lucky ones. Hollywood chimps generally don't fare well. We're like child stars--more likely to meet with tragedy when fully grown.

It's not our fault. Case in point: Those Hollywood chimps who busted out of a sanctuary near Bakersfield two years ago, then bit off a man's fingers and nose before being shot to death. You have to wonder what made them snap like that.

Everyone assumes that Hollywood animals are treated humanely, 24-7, thanks to that ubiquitous disclaimer: "No animals were hurt in the making of this blah blah." Few people consider what happens to animals after the movie wraps. Believe me, retirement is the next great challenge for animal-rights activists, because if you're a Hollywood animal, retirement can be hell.

Hence the recent parade of visitors to my cage. People want to celebrate the rare success story I represent--a Hollywood chimp who's retired, fat and happy. That famous chimp broad, Jane Goodall? She came by for a look-see last fall. Also, the mayor of Palm Springs, Ronald Oden? There's talk he'll declare my birthday to be Cheeta Day. (Cheeta--that's my stage name. Real name's Jiggs. Don't ask.)

And now here comes this dopey-looking reporter. How do I know he's a reporter? Check out those clothes. And that silly notebook. Look at him peer into my cage, that expectant look on his hairless face, as if I might blurt out a few words. Get a grip, bud, I'm an ape, not a Muppet.

The 62-year-old fellow with the reporter is Dan Westfall, my trainer. Westfall used to be a singer-comedian, back in his salad days. That's why we get along, because we're both retired showmen, living the quiet life in this primate sanctuary Westfall runs out of his house, on this otherwise normal suburban street in Palm Springs. (The neighbors don't seem to mind. "They like it," Westfall says. In 19 years, he insists, he's not had one complaint about noise.) The other reason Westfall and I click is that, as you can see, the man doesn't say much. He's a little like Tarzan--one-word responses, three-word sentences. Between my nonverbal nature and Westfall's sparse answers, I wonder how in the world this reporter is going to write his story.

Besides me there are five other primates in cages behind Westfall's pool, all retired showbiz hands, including Jeeter, my grandson. Jeeter loves the water, even swims in Westfall's pool, whereas I've got more important things to do than perfect my backstroke. I'm a Renaissance chimp. I watch TV. (Cartoons mostly.) I look through books. I play piano. "He's getting ready to do a CD," Westfall says. "You know Buddy Greco? Buddy's producing his CD."

What I really love is painting. I'm good too. Westfall offers my paintings for sale on the Internet--$135 a throw, including shipping and handling--and he does land-office business. The money helps fund his nonprofit sanctuary.

I guess you'd call my stuff abstract. Some of my canvases recall the late Pollock, some are straight-up Kandinsky, with a dash of Brice Marden. I like to say my style is always evolving. I never get tired of that joke.

Westfall's uncle, Tony Gentry, was the trainer who first "discovered" me. Actually, snatched me from the Liberian jungle back in 1932. Imagine: There I was, 6 months old, minding my own beeswax, when suddenly through the underbrush comes this mob of Liberians, led by this Hollywood trainer. I wasn't into wearing diapers yet, but I wish I had been, if you get my drift.

Next thing I know, I'm thousands of miles from home, missing my mother, wearing silly get-ups, taking guff from some sap in a director's chair. I'm not beefing, mind you. How many chimps can say they worked with all the showbiz greats? Maureen O'Sullivan. Rex Harrison. Ronald Reagan.

My breakout role was opposite Johnny Weissmuller, a.k.a. Tarzan. I was the comic relief. I'd stagger around, do something silly, pull a long face--you know, break up the tension. Or else I'd stir things up, cause a little mischief. That shtick won me most of my fans. I still get letters, e-mails, and you wouldn't believe the number of people buzzing on the Internet about my birthday.

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