Cheeta, Screen Star for the Ages Like many retirees, Cheeta the chimp spends quiet days in a Sun Belt state, keeping busy with painting and reflecting on a successful career. Dan Westfall, who takes care of Cheeta and other aging animal actors, talks with Debbie Elliott on Cheeta's 74th birthday.
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Cheeta, Screen Star for the Ages

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Cheeta, Screen Star for the Ages

Cheeta, Screen Star for the Ages

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Cheeta turned 74 today.

(Soundbite of song All That Jazz)

ELLIOTT: No, no, no, no. Not Chita Rivera. This Cheeta.

(Soundbite of chimpanzee)

ELLIOTT: Tarzan's swinging friend is believed to be the oldest living chimpanzee in the world. He appeared in his first movie back in 1934, Tarzan and His Mate, and he has 12 other films to his credit. Now retired, Cheeta spends his days painting and relaxing in Palm Springs, California. Where else? Joining us now is Cheeta the chimp. Hi there, Cheeta.

(Soundbite of chimpanzee)

Mr. DAN WESTFELT (Operator, C.H.E.E.T.A. Primate Sanctuary): That was him saying hi.

ELLIOTT: Also with us is Cheeta's companion Dan Westfelt of the C.H.E.E.T.A. Primate Sanctuary in Palm Springs. Hi there, Dan.


ELLIOTT: Thanks for being with us.

Mr. WESTFELT: Well, thank you for having us.

ELLIOTT: Now, I read somewhere that most chimpanzees only live to be about 50, even in captivity.

Mr. WESTFELT: That's right, yeah, yeah, yeah.

ELLIOTT: And he's 74 now.

Mr. WESTFELT: He's 74, and he has every tooth in his head.

ELLIOTT: And what's his secret to living long?

Mr. WESTFELT: Being in captivity and having all the good food and all the love and everything, you know. I guess it's, and it's like an old person. Why do they live so long? It's in their genes, probably, too. It has a lot to do with it, but he's never had to fight for food, and he has his proper medication, and he's a diabetic now, and I pull his blood everyday, and he's on the insulin shots. But when he sees me coming with the needle, he just holds his arm up, and he's real good about that.

ELLIOTT: Now, how do you manage a chimp's diabetes? What do you feed him?

Mr. WESTFELT: Well, their main diet is lots of fruits and lots of vegetables and monkey chow, which is made special for primates, but he loves junk food just like we do. He loves to get in the car and go to McDonald's or Burger King and have fries, hamburger and a coke, but...

ELLIOTT: What does the drive-through clerk think...

Mr. WESTFELT: Oh, they get a kick out of it.

ELLIOTT: ...a chimpanzee in the car with you?

Mr. WESTFELT: Yeah, they get a kick out of it (unintelligible) make him a funny face, you know. But he loves outings. He loves to go for walks and stuff, and he loves to come in the house and sit, and we watch TV together, and sometimes I put on an old Tarzan movie and he sits there and he gets interested and claps his hands and smiles...

ELLIOTT: He recognizes himself.

Mr. WESTFELT: Well, I think he does. I think he does. And he enjoys it, anyway. Of course he loves Animal Planet, anything that a animal's in it, and he loves cartoons.

ELLIOTT: It sounds like a pretty cushy retirement life. I guess that's fitting for a Hollywood star.

Mr. WESTFELT: Yeah, well, you know, he, most celebrities when they retire and move to Palm Springs, they take up golf because this is the golf capital of the world, but he took up painting, and he's an artist, a famous artist. As a matter of fact, we're proud to say three of his paintings have hung in the National Museum in London a few years ago...


Mr. WESTFELT: Trafalgar Square.

ELLIOTT: What kinds of things does Cheeta like to paint?

Mr. WESTFELT: Well, it's abstract painting, of course, you know, but we trademarked the name apestract, and...

Isn't that clever?

ELLIOTT: It was clever.

Mr. WESTFELT: Yes, and then I give him the colors, and he squirts the paint on the board and takes the brush and goes away, and he does 'em fast. He doesn't study 'em like you and I would sit back and study and look, you know, and study and paint. He just whip, whip, ba, ba, bum, bum, okay, next, you know. But he enjoys doing it.

ELLIOTT: So what will you all be doing to celebrate his birthday today?

Mr. WESTFELT: Well, he's gonna have a big diabetic cake. We've got lots of guests coming over, and one of the biggest comedians in Spain, Felipe(ph) is his name, and he will be presenting Cheeta a special comedy award, and they're gonna televise it for Spain and all over South America and parts of Europe.

ELLIOTT: Dan Westfelt of the C.H.E.E.T.A. Primate Sanctuary in Palm Springs, California, where Cheeta the chimp lives the comfortable life of a retired Hollywood star. Thanks for joining us, Mr. Westfelt.

(Soundbite of jungle music)

Mr. WESTFELT: Well, thank you very much.

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