Jungle fever clouds chimp obituary

By Jack Shafer
December 28, 2011

There are no slower slow-news days than the ones that fall between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Washington depopulates, Wall Street evacuates, and corporate America vanishes, creating a massive news drought that not even bad college football bowl games can fill. Journalists respond not by digging deeper for news but by imitating the hot-shot vacationers: Newsroom bosses and their hot-shot reporters escape if they can, leaving their newspapers, wire services, and broadcasters short-staffed and snow drifts of wire-service copy fill newspapers everywhere.

So, if Cheetah (the spelling varies, with some outlets using “Cheeta”), an elderly chimpanzee who died at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Fla., on Dec. 24, wanted a Viking send-off from the press, he couldn’t have picked a better time to expire. The Tampa Bay Tribune appears to have been the first to break the story of his death yesterday in a short story. According to the Tribune, this wasn’t just any dead chimpanzee, this was Johnny Weissmuller’s co-star in a couple of Tarzan films from the early 1930s. Sanctuary spokesman Debbie Cobb told the Tribune that Cheetah, roughly 80 years-old, had been acquired from the Weissmuller estate in Ocala, Fla., sometime near 1960. Hundreds of news organizations repeated the Tribune‘s claims, either by republishing the Associated Press rewrite or by creating their own derivative accounts, including Reuters, CNN, MSNBC.com, the Washington Post, and the London Telegraph. Even the New York Times published a credulous Cheetah story on its Arts Beat blog today at 9:53 a.m., mostly based on the Tribune piece.

The death of Tarzan’s Cheetah at a Florida roadside zoo was “too good to check,” as journalists like to put it—especially during a holiday week. Had anyone bothered to make a few phone calls, plumbed a few news databases, or relied on common sense, they would have instantly discovered how improbable it was that the chimp had worked in the movies with Weissmuller.

For one thing, it’s unlikely that a male chimp would live to the age of 80. The oldest chimp residing in an Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facility, says Steve Ross of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, is Lil’ Mama, and she’s in her early 70s. The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary is not the greatest animal facility in the world. It’s not AZA-accredited and it has a bit of a dodgy history. Previously doing business as Noell’s Ark Chimp Farm, the attraction had been closed for about a decade when the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) ran this 2008 article about its reopening. The paper reported:

In 1999, the USDA stripped the sanctuary of its license for public exhibitions, citing small, rusty cages used to house the apes and improper record-keeping.

Two years later, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission declined to renew the facility’s state license for keeping exotic animals, citing similar concerns.

Other incongruities argued against the claim that this chimp was Tarzan’s Cheetah. Sanctuary spokesman Cobb told the Tribune that Cheetah arrived at the attraction around 1960, yet the earliest mention preserved in Nexis of his residence there is a June 3, 2001, Tallahassee Democrat article, which also states that the Noell family established the place in the mid-1950s as a “retirement home” for old circus and movie primates. (If you housed the original Cheetah in a cheap roadside attraction, wouldn’t you make a bigger deal about it?)

A 2002 St. Petersburg Times piece gave a more dramatic spin to Cheetah’s arrival, stating that he “ended up in a research lab after Hollywood replaced it with another chimpanzee.” A St. Petersburg Times article from 2006 declared that Cheetah had been a resident for “about three decades,” which would place his arrival at the roadside attraction at about the time of the Jimmy Carter inauguration. That the sanctuary never gave the animal a consistent biography indicates that several somebodies were making things up as they went along.

By early afternoon, Cheetah’s Viking funeral was sinking. At 1:44 p.m., the New York Times updated its earlier, credulous piece, noting that “the announcement drew skepticism and recalled a previous incident of mistaken chimpanzee identity,” a reference to an AFP story that cited a brilliant 2008 Washington Post feature about a West Coast chimpanzee purported by its owner to be the real Cheeta. Miami New Times noted, along with other debunkers, that several chimps played the role as Tarzan’s sidekick, and that the most famous of them, Jiggs, had died in 1938. “Jiggs seems to be the only animal actor whose role in the films has been established thoroughly,” Miami New Times reported. Weissmuller was involved in a Titusville, Fla., attraction called Tropical Wonderland or Tarzan’s Jungleland, the newspaper reported, but it closed in 1973. “Is it possible this Cheetah came from Weissmuller’s tourist trap and not his actual movies?”

Possible? I’d say almost inevitable. The lessons to draw from Cheetah stories, in their order of importance. 1) Always verify what unknown spokesmen tell you. 2) Don’t trust fantastic stories about animals. 3) Discrepancies in obituary details often signal something awry. 4) And beware of holiday news.

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How long would it take 20 Hollywood chimpanzees to write this column? Send your best number to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Channel your inner ape through my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.

PHOTO: Cheetah, a chimpanzee who died on December 24, was purported to have starred in Tarzan movies. Courtesy Suncoast Primary Sanctuary.

3 comments

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yea, it sure seems to be a slow news day, at least for dear old Jack, who, however, manages to grind a thousand words out of a not too exuberant chimp story!

Posted by MIKEROL | Report as abusive

Good article. My interest in piqued.

Posted by slyran | Report as abusive

Why dont you tell us how long it took one chimp to write this story?

Posted by billsfriend | Report as abusive