Lunch with Cheeta

Blurring the lines between human and chimp

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Photographs and text by Kirk Crippens

Published in the May/June 2009 issue of Orion magazine

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.