28 Dec Cheetah, Tarzan’s Chimp, Leaves a Legacy

Cheetah, Tarzan’s chimpanzee sidekick, died today at the age of 80. Yes, it’s remarkable that a chimp could live to be that old. But more remarkable is Cheetah’s legacy. Bear with me. Cheetah was the first famous friendly ape. He introduced generations of children to the notion that 1) animals can be our allies, 2) our primate cousins are bright and should be given some consideration, even respect, and 3) we can love a creature that isn’t quite human and isn’t quite animal. In many respects, Cheetah was one step away from ET and R2-D2.

We Baby Boomers grew up watching Tarzan movies on Saturday morning TV. When we played “Tarzan” in our back yards, many of us took the role of Cheetah and channeled the wild, monkey-smart side of our selves. This helped us become more empathetic. It made many of us into animal lovers. Ultimately, playing Cheetah embued some of us with the kind of humane optimism and feeling that gave rise to PETA and other animal rescue societies. If most people today find chimps and their brethren cute, Cheetah — and his many successors in film — was instrumental in shaping their perception.

It wasn’t always so. With the discovery of the “new world” in the early days of exploration (1500-1700s), monkeys fascinated Westerners, who brought them back as curios. But the great apes, like chimps and orangutans, were always considered suspect. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), features a killer orangutan, for instance. Never mind that you would be hard-pressed to rouse the ire of any orangutan (a thoroughly peaceable tribe), unless, say, you stole its banana. When white explorers disovered gorillas in “darkest Africa,” in 1847, these apes were considered to be man-killers, based solely on their fierce appearance. It is but a short hop from this early perception to the 1933’s film King Kong, the sad tale of a giant ape taken captive and ill-used by Westerners.

As sympathetic as King Kong was to the great ape, the movie nonetheless perpetuated the myth that apes are killers — a myth that movie makers exploited fully in a spate of killer-gorilla films of the 1940s and 50s, like White Pongo (1945) and Bride of the Gorilla (1951 — starring Raymond Burr of “Perry Mason” fame). Cheetah’s kind and humorous example stood in opposition to all of this. Cheetah often saved the day, braving great danger (lions!) to carry his message home. Cheetah was always good for a smile and a friendly pat of your hand.

It is rumored that, in real life, Cheetah was something of an asshole. So it is, and has been, with many Hollywood stars. It is rumored too that this incredibly long-lived chimp was not the real Cheetah. No matter. Whether this now-dead chimp was the true Cheetah or a pretender, we acknowledge today that Cheetah is gone. In doing so, we acknowledge that Cheetah made a different, helping us humans think more kindly of our extended primate family and, in turn, of all creatures who, from distance, look not quite like us.