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.
But all good things come to an end. I called it a career in 1967, after we wrapped “Doctor Dolittle.” I’d had a good run. Longer than most. Typically, when a Hollywood chimp reaches 7 or 8, he’s too strong, too aggressive to work in showbiz any longer. He’ll live another 30 years, at least, but he can’t be controlled, so he’s cast aside.
“Cheeta is a very unusual case,” says Patti Ragan, founder of the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, Fla., one of the nation’s few chimp sanctuaries. “These animals have ended up in backyard cages, breeder compounds.”
And worse. According to a group called the Chimpanzee Collaboratory, the odds were heavy against me landing in this lap of luxury: Chubbs, who starred in that recent remake of “Planet of the Apes”? He now lives in a Texas roadside zoo that’s been charged with violating the Endangered Species Act. Lily, star of “Babe 2"? She sits in a dismal cement cage somewhere in Arkansas. The list goes on and on.
It’s not just that very few sanctuaries accept retired Hollywood chimps, Ragan says. The ones that do are all at capacity, including hers. That leaves some of us with no place to go.
“We have a 47-year-old male,” Ragan says. “He came out of the circus--they retired him at age 15--then kept him alone in a tiny little cage by himself for 25 or 30 years. He never saw another chimp again. When he came here we didn’t know if we could ever get him to be with other chimps.”
She’s pleased to report that this chimp now lives with a group of castrated male circus chimps, reasonably content. Happy ending. Sort of.
Here’s the scary thing: No matter what we endure, life is better for Hollywood animals today than it used to be. Back when I got into showbiz, there were no standards. “The Champions, the Triggers, the Lassies, they were treated well,” says Karen Rosa, director of the American Humane Assn. Film and TV Unit. “But a lot of background animals suffered a lot of abuses.”
Now, nearly every film that uses animals must have an on-set monitor from the Humane Assn., and Rosa hopes to extend this mandatory monitoring to retirement. “To be honest with you,” she says, “that very much would be a future initiative for us.”
But the initiative will cost plenty. More sanctuaries, more monitors. And at the moment, Rosa warns, there isn’t a public outcry, or a massive studio push, for those sorts of reforms.
Meanwhile, some activists say you can monitor our work years, monitor our retirement, it’s still not enough. Chimps should never be retired, because they should never be forced to work in the first place. “A lot of leading chimp experts have all agreed it just can’t be done without abuse,” says Sarah Baeckler, a law student who went undercover four years ago to expose abuses at the Amazing Animal Actors ranch in Malibu. “Chimps are so strong and they’re so smart that you just can’t control them without creating this relationship of domination and fear--and that’s what I saw working with Mr. Sid Yost.”
In 2005, Baeckler helped the Northern California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund sue Yost, a well-known Hollywood trainer. The lawsuit was settled before it went to court, and though Yost denied all charges, under the settlement he agreed to retire his chimps and never work with any of us again.
Check out this reporter, edging closer, staring, like he’s at a police lineup and I’m the guy who lifted his watch. Why do people look at me that way? He mentions my hands, so like his own, except I need lotion, bad, and I have jet-black nails, which look kind of Goth. Also, he notes my facial expressions, which run the gamut from mopey to silly.
Part of people’s fascination with me is that I’m the world’s most controversial animal. Make all the flicks you want about penguins, I’m still the animal everyone gets excited about. Why? Because people know in their hearts that I’m kin.
I don’t want to open that whole Darwin can of worms, but come on. There’s only one line that divides people and chimps: language. Chimps laugh, hug, kiss, reason, make war, use tools, form relationships, hold funerals. The only big thing we can’t do is talk. (I mean, to you. We talk a blue streak to each other.) Pretty slight difference, no? Aren’t there billions of humans who can’t talk to each other? Doesn’t make them different species, does it?
Tell me where I’m wrong.
Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, puts it best in his book “The Third Chimpanzee.” He points out that humans and chimps have 98% identical genetic makeup. “The overall genetic difference between us and chimps,” he writes, “is even smaller than the distance between such closely related bird species as red-eyed and white-eyed vireos.”
The defense rests. We’re kissing cousins. Deal with it. Why else would you people be so obsessed with us? Why else would my 75th birthday be such an event? (Liz Taylor turned 75 not long ago--you see anyone making a stink?) It’s like my favorite author, Henry James, once wrote: “Cats and monkeys, monkeys and cats--all human life is there!”
Yeah, I know, a chimp isn’t actually a monkey. But you get the point.
Watch me give this reporter a cheap thrill. I’ll pull my top lip to my nose. There you go, bud. Feast your eyes on those beauts! Originals! Plus, I’ve got the exact same number as you. Draw your own conclusions.
Look, he’s laughing. It’s a gift--what can I say?
Westfall tells the reporter that he and I often tool around town in his golf cart. Also, we often pass an evening “wrassling,” “playing tickle games.” Some nights we lie together on Westfall’s couch, watching TV, grooming each other. The reporter’s eyes get wide. “He’s my best friend,” Westfall says. “My everything.”
The reporter writes it all down. And they call me a trained animal.
Westfall and me, we’re not as unique as you might think. The bond between people and chimps can be extraordinarily intense, Baeckler says: “Taking care of a captive chimp well is very similar to taking care of a human well.” Thus, we attach rather quickly. We don’t so much become family as realize we are family. “It’s definitely distinct from how very caring people would think of their dogs.”
Westfall talks to me, kisses me on the mouth, as if I were his son, and in a way I am. Divorced, no kids, he devotes his days to my care and comfort. The man won’t even allow himself a vacation, because, as you might imagine, there aren’t many “chimp sitters” in Palm Springs.
Then again, chimps may look and act like children, but we’re caged heat, and Westfall doesn’t dare forget it. All captive primates eventually become inmates, so Westfall goes to lengths to keep us apart. “They’d kill each other,” he says.
It nearly happened some years ago. Jeeter and I were playing, having a grand time, and things turned ugly in a Tanzanian minute. Jeeter flew into a homicidal rage. Or should I say hominid-icidal? “Jeeter hurt Cheeta real bad,” Westfall says. “Took a big chunk out of his lip.” Westfall threw himself between us. Saved my life. For the umpteenth time.
The first time Westfall saved me, it was from his uncle. After we’d been together 50 years, Gentry drew up a will stipulating that when he died I should be euthanized. It was his way of protecting me. “He was afraid [Cheeta] would be mistreated,” Westfall says. “Afraid he’d be sent to a research lab.”
But Westfall couldn’t bear the idea of my being put down. He worked on Gentry for years, begging him to reconsider. Finally, when Gentry was confined to a wheelchair, when he couldn’t care for me anymore, he called Westfall and said: You want him? Come get him.
That was a bad day. April 1991. Exactly 16 years ago this month.
It started innocently. Gentry jiggled my leash as if we were going for a walk. I commenced screeching with joy. But as Gentry led me outside I saw Westfall’s van. And then I saw my Travel Box. “I’ll never forget,” Westfall says. “All of a sudden Cheeta stops. Looks at the van. Looks at my uncle. Looks at the van. He knew it was over.”
I lost it. But Gentry ordered me to get in the Travel Box. Then he locked it up and fell back into his wheelchair, tears rolling down his cheeks. “I’ll never see him again,” Gentry moaned just before Westfall and I drove off.
Now and then Westfall would call Gentry and put me on the phone. We’d jabber away, catching up. It was bittersweet, because Gentry and Westfall knew. They knew. And sure enough, three months after I left, Gentry died.
Now Westfall won’t put me in that Travel Box, no way, no how. Jay Leno has invited us to be on “The Tonight Show,” but Westfall refuses, because it would mean breaking out the Travel Box, and neither of us could take that. Too many memories.
It’s incredible to think how much Westfall has done for me. Did I mention I’ve got diabetes? Poor guy has to take my blood every day, give me insulin shots, monitor my diet, fix me nutritious sandwiches. He’s a stickler. But a softy too. A chimp’s got to have some vices, right? So he takes me now and then to McDonald’s for a cheeseburger, fries and a Coke. We’re going again soon, right, Dan-O? Drive-thru? Like last time? For my birthday?
Look how he acts as if he doesn’t know what I’m talking about.
The more Westfall and I talk to each other, gaze at each other, the more we seem like Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat. I love those books, because they always end happily, and as a showbiz veteran I’m a sucker for happy endings. But every love story, eventually, ultimately, ends sadly.
There’s a wrenching morning ahead. Westfall will call to me and I won’t appear. He’ll find me curled on my blanket, cartoons blaring, and for once I’ll be perfectly still. Westfall will then have to pick out the ultimate Travel Box for me to make my last journey.
The reporter asks Westfall if he worries about that day.
Yes, he says he thinks about it, but he doesn’t worry, because he tries to focus on how much joy I’ve brought people around the world.
He says people around the world, but he means himself.
Language. It’s a tricky business. On the whole, I’m glad I’ve never had to deal with it.
The reporter shuts his notebook. He thanks Westfall, waves to me. He looks glum. Maybe he suddenly understands that love is love, whatever form it takes, and the end of love, the prospect of the desolation that follows in its absence, is a hard thing to think about, for any primate.
See you, bud. Drive safe.
And for Darwin’s sake, cheer up.
Look at his face. Solemn. Thoughtful. As if he sees the cosmos and his place in it a little differently after meeting me.
Hey, I have that effect on people.
What can I say?
For more photos, go to latimes.com/cheeta