Animal Inventory Blog

Keeping track of animals in popular culture.

EW Explains, “It’s Hard Out There for a Chimp”

Posted by lisagbrown on October 13, 2008

Entertainment Weekly, one of my favorite pop-culture publications, has highlighted the life and times of Cheeta, a 76-year old chimp who played Tarzan’s best friend in the 1930s and 40s. In this week’s EW, the article “It’s Hard out there for a Chimp” by Josh Rottenberg explores the life of one of Hollywood’s forgotten veterans.

There were many chimps over the years who played Tarzan’s sidekick, but Cheeta’s guardian Dan Westfall explains, “[This] Cheeta is the ambassador. He represents all the chimps in the Tarzan pictures.” The retired chimp is in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the oldest known nonhuman primate. In addition to his repeated performances in the Tarzan franchise, Cheeta also starred in Bedtime for Bonzo, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, and the 1967 Doctor Doolittle. Now that he’s retired, Cheetah spends his days watching TV, painting canvases and lounging in an apartment that befits a 76-year old retired movie star.

When mainstream media write about nonhuman primates in entertainment, articles often devolve into slapstick humor-laden stories that lack any insight — apes wearing children’s clothing and causing Curious George-like mischief. Thankfully, EW‘s Josh Rottenberg doesn’t fall into that cliche. Instead, finds the deeper layers of this story. Rottenberg describes the myriad projects that Cheeta’s human friends engage in on the chimp’s behalf (a ghost written autobiography, a novelty music recording, a budding art career). But Rottenberg also wonders what Cheeta thinks of all this fuss:

Precisely what Cheetah makes of all this activity on his behalf is anyone’s guess, of course. Chimpanzees may share, by recent estimates, nearly 98% of their DNA with humans. But those remaining bits of genetic code represent a chasm in communication that even the most assiduous celebrity journalist, trained to pry secrets from tight-lipped movie stars, cannot bridge.

Rottenberg places the ape at the center of his story by merely acknowledging that Cheeta could have an opinion. He lays the groundwork for viewing Cheeta’s life from the ape’s point of view. It is a subtle, but effective shift. And as a result, it is the human subjects, rather than the ape, who appear to be mildly farcical. Westfall is indignant because Cheeta doesn’t have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame like Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, and even Tinker Bell. While this may reflect Hollywood’s oversight of apes in entertainment, it also seems like the disgruntled rant of an overbearing stage dad whose priorities are skewed — especially when Rottenberg comments that Cheeta seems “untroubled” by the controversy.

Rottenberg quietly takes Hollywood to task for its use of animals in entertainment. Of Cheeta’s charmed retirement, he says “considering the way many showbiz animals are treated after their moment of glory, this is not a bad place to be.”

I would have liked to see a bit more vitriol in Rottenberg’s indictment of the use and abuse of animals in Hollywood, but sometimes even-handed judgment is a more effective way to highlight a point. Subtlety is a tool that Rottenberg wields well, but sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what he thinks, or what he wants his readers to glean from his storytelling. It’s unclear whether he honors or mocks Westfall’s declaration of devotion to Cheeta when Westfall says, “It’s almost a spiritual thing, the love we have for each other. The way he looks at me sometimes — I can’t explain it. He’s my best friend.”

However, when it comes to Cheeta himself, Rottenberg neither vilifies nor infantilizes his subject. Rottenberg repeatedly reminds his readers that Cheeta is a non-domesticated animal capable of both great violence and serene tenderness. He tries to paint a complete portrait of an animal that has simply been thrust into an unnatural environment. Cheeta is doing the best he can with what he’s got — with or without a star on the Walk of Fame.

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