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Claim of octogenarian chimp prompts questions

By Ashley Hayes and Melissa Gray, CNN
updated 10:57 PM EST, Fri December 30, 2011
Several chimpanzees appeared in various Tarzan movies, many of which were popular in the 1930s and 1940s.
Several chimpanzees appeared in various Tarzan movies, many of which were popular in the 1930s and 1940s.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A Florida primate sanctuary maintains Cheetah was 80-plus
  • Primatologists say they are skeptical about the claim
  • Primatologists say chimps in captivity can live up to age 60
  • Cheetah acted in Tarzan movies in the 1930s, a sanctuary official says

(CNN) -- A Florida primate sanctuary on Thursday maintained its chimpanzee named Cheetah, who died last week, was more than 80 years old and acted in the Tarzan movies during the 1930s, amid doubts about his age.

Cheetah died Saturday after suffering kidney failure the week before, the sanctuary said on its website.

Several chimpanzees appeared in various Tarzan movies, many of which were popular in the 1930s and 1940s. Debbie Cobb, outreach director at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Florida, said Cheetah appeared in the Tarzan moves from 1932 through 1934, meaning he was older than 80.

"I've been around this chimp for 51 years, so we know he's 51, and he was an adult when I met him," Cobb said.

But several primatologists said Thursday they were skeptical that Cheetah was in his 80s when he died. Chimps commonly live into their 40s, and in captivity they can live up to age 60, according to Friends of Washoe, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the welfare of chimpanzees.

"It's hard to doubt folks who are caring for the chimp if they say they've had the chimpanzee that long consistently -- I'm not in any position to question it," said John Mitani, a primatologist at the University of Michigan. "What's a bit surprising about the story is that the chimp is reported to be as old as it is."

He said it would be "quite remarkable" to find a chimpanzee anywhere who could live to 80.

Cobb said her grandparents acquired Cheetah for the sanctuary in about 1959 or 1960. "They used to pick up their own animals," she said.

She told CNN affiliate WFLA that Cheetah came from the estate of Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan in movies through 1948 with other chimpanzees. Weissmuller -- the first speaking Tarzan, according to the Internet Movie Database website -- died in 1984.

Steve Ross, a primatologist at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and a leading authority on chimpanzees, administers the Chimpanzee Studbook, a record of chimpanzees who live in North American zoos. He said "only a small handful" of chimps in records dating to 1901 have even approached 70.

"I think in that light, it's a pretty unlikely claim" that Cheetah was older than 80, Ross told CNN.

The likelihood of a chimp living to 80-plus is "slim to none," said Mireya Mayor, a primatologist who has worked with National Geographic.

Said Mary Lee Jensvold, dierctor of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute in central Washington state, "It makes me scratch my head a little bit."

Cobb said the life expectancy of chimpanzees can be higher in sanctuaries because of the quality of care they receive. At Suncoast, they are fed five times a day and receive attentive care.

"They can go so long, and they can mask illnesses so greatly," Cobb said.

Another chimpanzee in a Florida sanctuary named Little Mama is said to be 74 years old and believed to be the oldest living chimp now, said Jennifer Berthiaume, a spokeswoman for the Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee.

Ross said even Little Mama's age is "pushing it a little bit," and Mitani said that age exceeds what scientists have been able to document.

Another chimpanzee named Cheeta lives on a primate sanctuary in Southern California named C.H.E.E.T.A (Creative Habitats and Enrichment for Endangered and Threatened Apes), both named after the chimp character in the Tarzan movies.

The California sanctuary's creator, Dan Westfall, said on its website that he was saddened to hear of Cheetah's passing in Florida. He said he and others at the sanctuary "send our deepest sympathies to our colleagues at Suncoast."

Westfall said he was told his Cheeta was one of the original chimps in the Tarzan movies during the 1930s and 1940s. But when he began working with Washington Post writer R.D. Rosen on Cheeta's biography several years ago, research revealed "that our Cheeta is unlikely to be as old as we'd thought, although he is clearly old," Westfall wrote.

"It is also difficult to determine which movies, if any, our Cheeta may have been in," Westfall wrote.

Cobb said several primates at her Florida sanctuary have been in the entertainment industry. "To me, they're all celebrities," she said.

On the Cheetah matter, she said, "We know there's going to be naysayers. We don't run in that mode."

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