Lunch with Cheeta

LUNCH WAS LAID OUT: tortilla chips, a hot dog wrapped in a slice of wheat bread, and soda, diet soda, set on a blue placemat atop a round, glass-topped patio table. The meal, its setting on the back porch, the warm California sunshine, and the patio furniture were just what I might desire out of retirement.

This is the home of Cheeta, the former show-business chimpanzee and namesake of an organization called Creative Habitats for Endangered and Threatened Apes (C.H.E.E.T.A), founded by Dan Westfall, Cheeta’s long-term, live-in caregiver. Their house, which is shared by various dogs, birds, a pair of orangutans, a few monkeys, and a couple more chimpanzees, is situated in a typical Palm Springs neighborhood — on a long flat street winding through the California desert, amid other houses built low to the ground and patterned one after another. Cheeta, now in his mid-seventies, lives like a retired Bob Hope, making paintings, riding around in a golf cart, and playing the piano.

In December of 2000, President Clinton signed into law the “CHIMP Act,” which allocated federal funds for the care of former research primates. The act also prohibited routine euthanasia and mandated chimpanzee retirement homes, thus setting primates apart from other nonhuman animals.

Eventually Dan and Cheeta walked through the house and out to the patio, where Cheeta immediately sat down in his plastic chair and started to eat. I was instructed to stay on the other side of the table — several feet beyond the table, in fact. I would not be shaking hands with, hugging, or even touching our host, who was powerful enough to pull my arm off my body if he wanted to. Looking down at the meal, I thought this particular spread seemed like a strange diet for a chimp, but Dan had assured me that this was the way Cheeta had eaten his whole life; this was what he knew. The soda was diet because Cheeta is diabetic and receives insulin injections every day.

After a few bites he began to look around, and I caught his eye. He looked directly at me, and I saw a depth that I am only used to glimpsing in another human’s eyes. To be in his presence, to sit across from him as if in conversation, felt strangely significant. I felt a welling-up in my chest.

He looked like any elderly retired gentleman as he sat in a chair at a table, handling cups and bowls. When Dan handed him an apple for dessert, Cheeta gladly took it in his hand and bit into it. He chewed his food, swallowed, and took another bite. I could see no difference in the way he ate his apple and the way I might eat an apple; his bite size was the same. I looked at the skin on his chest, visible through his hair, noticed his shoulder, his wrist, his feet hanging beneath the table. He was quiet as he ate. Cheeta’s life as a movie star and now as ambassador for chimpanzees came through human intervention. We plucked him out of the jungle when he was a baby and trained him to act in movies. Now, his mannerisms, mind, and indeed spirit blurred the line between human and chimp.

Kirk Crippen’s photographs have been exhibited in galleries across the country. He is based in San Francisco.


  1. Shelley — The sidebar on the website includes a link to a Los Angeles Times story that reprises the Washington Post piece, which does indeed raise some interesting questions.
    Hal Clifford
    Executive Editor, Orion

  2. I noticed the sidebar link after I wrote my comment. However, hoping that people read the sidebar links is not the same as incorporating the information in the article.

    One other thing: anyone that would enter the room with an adult chimp based on the say so of a person who “believes” they have control over the chimp, is not exercising good judgment. There’s a reason why chimps in movies are juveniles, and its not just because they’re cute.

  3. I heard about Cheeta during an NPR story where he was described as the old Cheeta from the B&W Tarzan movies. While working on the text for the Orion article, Dan Westfall, Cheeta’s caregiver, told me he was no longer sure which movies his Cheeta had actually been in, nor was he completely sure of his age. He updated the C.H.E.E.T.A. sanctuary website to reflect these new findings.

    Subsequently an article was published in the Washington Post by R.D. Rosen, who had been working with Dan as a ghostwriter on a Cheeta biography. When the book deal fell through, because so many questions about Cheeta’s past had arisen, Rosen’s article “Lie of the Jungle” was published.

    Dan – as he has always done around April 9th, put on a birthday party for Cheeta- despite the controversy. He invited the media, hoping to have an opportunity to tell his side of the story: that he had always believed his uncle’s account of Cheeta’s history, but after research (which he had instigated), much of Cheeta’s history was called into question. He was no longer sure which movies Cheeta had been in or how old he was.

    During the birthday party, which was attended by Johnny Weissmuller’s widow (Johnny Weissmuller’s is the actor who played Tarzan in the B&W Tarzan movies) – everyone seemed to agree that this Cheeta was an ambassador. They did not care that his exact age had come under question.

    After Cheeta ate his cake – a special cake for diabetics, Dan stood behind him and stated that Cheeta’s mother had been killed and Cheeta had been captured, brought to the US, and forced into show business as a child – so we could be entertained. Dan expressed his wish that the entertainment industry put a stop to the practice of using live chimpanzees.

    Dan has always shown love, devotion and a healthy respect for Cheeta when I’ve been around. His goal seems to be to provide a safe, happy retirement for an animal with very special needs.

  4. Kirk, this was a great article and your added comment was excellent! Once again I find myself repeating what I truly believe. And that is ,that this Cheeta has devoted so much of his life representing all the “Cheeta’s” ,who have given up their “natural” lives ,so that we could be entertained. Cheeta has enabled us to relive so many of our treasured memories of childhood days and Tarzan movies. He’s brought happiness to thousands of fans all over the world. He is an “Ambassador”, and deserves our praise and gratitude for keeping this alive. This is the Cheeta we know and love. Dan Westfall continues to provide love, devotion, and a safe and happy haven for Cheeta as well as many other ex-showbusiness primates.I believe that Cheeta’s mission and accomplishments override misplaced facts and attempts to discredit him!

  5. Is this a publication devoted to science, or not?

    If it is devoted to science, then the first priority of the publication must be to discovering, and publishing, the truth.

  6. Thank you, Kirk, for this unique and inciteful article.
    I was drawn in immediately and found myself wanting to know more and more about this “line” between human and chimp.
    Cheeta provides us with a rare opportunity.
    His story is fascinating.
    And most importantly, it must be remembered that if it were not for the noble efforts of Dan Westfall to preserve and care for his dear “friend”, Cheeta, we would not even be talking about this.
    I look forward to more stories about Cheeta.
    Let’s feel his age, look into his eyes and discover their silent power and meaning.
    Every creature on this earth has a story.
    I loved the privilege of hearing about this one.
    More Cheeta, please.

  7. That was a wonderful comment sent in by Carol(May 4). More articles should be written about this amazing chimp, Cheeta, regardless of any uncertainties as to his exact age or the number of movies he has appeared in. It is obvious that Cheeta is elderly and we can learn so much from his long life.
    Cheeta’s story affords us the great opportunity to find out so much more about the “line” between human and chimp. The fascinating story of the life that Cheeta and Dan Westfall share, is probably the greatest window of opportunity to gain insight and knowledge into this. It appears to me that they share a very special bond of friendship, devotion, and love , which only adds to this exciting comparison and to the closeness/connection between man and chimp.

  8. I worked one summer at a tiny zoo in northern California – many of their animals were rescues from the entertainment industry. The most popular was Bill, a 50+ year-old chimpanzee who had been rescued from a circus that had passed through town – the local school children had raised money to buy him as he was getting too dangerous to continue in his circus act. Bill had a television behind the main part of his cage, and he watched it regularly. When elephants were on TV, he would become very agitated. He also reacted very strongly to seeing African American visitors to the zoo – in that special way chimps do, by flinging his poop. In my mind, these seem to be signs that he clearly remembered being captured as a young chimp in the wild in Africa, and probably witnessed his parents being killed…. Of course you can’t know what is causing this reaction, but it makes you think.

    Chimps have intelligence, form strong bonds, and long memories – we have mistreated these close relatives for too long. It’s nice that some can live out their long lives in “retirement” (no matter which movies they were in or not in – that seems like a trivial point when looking at the bigger picture of an animal taken from the wild and used in any way for our mere entertainment.)

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