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.