Man with a Chimpanzee

February 18, 2009

News of the chimpanzee nearly killing a woman in Connecticut delivered a memory. About fifteen years ago, during chitchat before a late-starting meeting, a colleague at a Florida newspaper mentioned that an elderly chimp lived with him. There was an uncomfortable silence. Then this man, friendly but blandly reserved, came to life as I questioned him about his companion.

At the time, I wished his revelation would have prompted me to learn more about the primates. I grew fond of them as a boy, watching Cheeta in old Tarzan movies on Saturday afternoons. Turns out Cheeta has outlived Tarzan and Jane (Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O’Sullivan) and will celebrate his 77th birthday in April. And he’s still a celebrity.

People may begin looking at Cheeta differently after the Connecticut attack. But perhaps what happened shouldn’t have surprised anyone. A new movies blog at the New Yorker magazine web site points to a 10-year-old documentary, Living with Chimpanzees: Portrait of a Family, that documents their unpredictability.

As for the colleague, I never thought of him the same way again. Passing in the hallways, I imagined him walking hand in hand with his chimp, smiling.