Local resident Cheeta, of the classic MGM Tarzan films made during the 1930’s and 1940’s in which he starred as the sidekick of Johnny Weissmuller, is being featured this week in Entertainment Weekly. The article heralds a new unofficial “autobiography” coming out in February 2009 called “Me Cheeta”. See their video of Cheeta Reading his Book.
After Cheeta’s career as a movie star ended, his trainer Tony Westfall continued to care for him. But Tony became terminally ill in the late 1980’s. Tony was so terrified that after his death, Cheeta would be mistreated that he wrote in his will that upon his death, Cheeta should be euthanized. Fortunately for Cheeta and for all his fans, Tony’s nephew, Dan Westfall, at length persuaded Tony to entrust the chimp to him for ongoing care.
In 1991, Dan created a sanctuary in Palm Springs, inspired in part by a meeting with Jane Goodall who had encouraged him to do so. The sanctuary is named after C.H.E.E.T.A. – Creative Habitats and Enrichment for Endangered and Threatened Apes. Cheeta and several other primates, most of them also retired from show business, live in the habitat, along with tropical birds. It is thought that Cheeta is now in his seventies and, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is the oldest living “non-human primate”.
Tony explains that these primates are very intelligent and the sanctuary provides an environment and social structure suited to their species. They are given affection, special care and attention, and activities to stimulate their intellect and curiosity. For physical comfort, the sanctuary is climate controlled year round, a must here in the desert. Special care for Cheeta includes daily insulin shots and a special diet for his diabetes (including beverages of diet coke and iced tea).
Many local residents are familiar with Cheeta’s story, as his artwork is occasionally displayed for sale in the sanctuary art booth during our weekly Palm Springs VillageFest. Dick and I are the proud owners of one of Cheeta’s original masterpieces which Dick commissioned as a Christmas present for me last year. He was invited to specify what colors Cheeta would use for our painting. It is an “ape-stract”, very colorful and is signed with Cheeta’s thumbprint in paint in the lower right corner. It came with biographical information on Cheeta, and two 8″x10″ glossy photos actually “signed” by Cheeta – one photo taken recently and one from his heyday with Johnny Weismuller. Purchases are treated as donations for the ongoing work at the sanctuary and are tax deductible .
Cheeta’s Web Site is a must visit and will make you smile. You can read more about his life and companions at the sanctuary and see some of his paintings, along with information on ordering your very own “ape-stract” art.