While much of the nation focuses on the Republican candidates and primaries, I find myself more fascinated by the Cheetah controversy. When you think about it, all fall under the heading “Planet of the Apes.”
A Florida animal sanctuary announced last month that chimpanzee Cheetah, Johnny Weissmuller’s hairy sidekick in the famous Depression-era Tarzan movies, died at age 80. The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary received Cheetah, it said, from Weissmuller’s estate around 1960. And kept him till he died.
The sanctuary said Cheetah enjoyed football games and Christian music, same as many of the presidential candidates. Unlike Rick Perry, however, Cheetah could finger paint.
But then a Chicago expert weighed in to ruin the charming Cheetah story and said he found it “very improbable” that a chimp could live that long. “Eighty is tough to swallow,” Dr. Steve Ross told The New York Times.
The Times did a nice obituary, anyhow, with a classic headline: “Cheetah, Tarzan’s Chimpanzee, Died. Perhaps Even Recently.”
I can’t help but notice that movie-star humans often seem to live forever, or at least longer than most of us, perhaps because, yes, acting is hard work but not compared with, say, coal mining or dentistry. Maybe the same goes for movie-star chimps. Cheetah got special treatment, no doubt, and by some accounts even got away with biting the likes of co-star Maureen O’Sullivan, who played Jane.
“He bit her at every opportunity,” Mia Farrow wrote. Mia is Maureen’s daughter.
And that quote reminded me of one of my own mother’s best stories. When she was a young girl, her farmer father drove a school bus in Southwest Georgia to help make ends meet during the Depression. On one class trip, he drove the bus and its high-school passengers from Colquitt, Ga., to Wakulla Springs, Fla., where some of the Tarzan movies were filmed. My mother, about 6 or 7, rode along.
When they arrived at the exotic park that could pass for Tarzan’s jungle, my mother refused to get off the bus. There were “monkeys” on the loose there, she said, and she wanted no part of that scene.
I’ll always wonder if she missed a golden opportunity to meet Cheetah, one of the biggest stars on the planet at the time. Did primal fear keep her from meeting the primate who would warrant a (sort-of) New York Times obituary? Were the fierce foes she imagined actually friends in ape’s clothing? Or, as Mia’s memory might indicate, maybe Mother was right?
I can’t blame Mother for her childhood nerves. I steer clear of some Republicans for fear of being bitten. Once bitten twice shy, they say, an old saying that would apply to almost anything but American voters.
American voters haven’t evolved enough not to vote against their own self-interests. We keep going back for more. And more.
Whenever a candidate thumps his chest and swings across the television screen screaming, we jump off the deep end and cling to the same flimsy vine. “Me Santorum,” he says. “Me Jane,” we reply.
And we wonder how we end up clear up to our uninsured necks in crocodiles.