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Lie of the Jungle: The Truth About Cheeta the Chimpanzee
When I arrived, Wells introduced me to two other people sitting patiently at his kitchen table: his friend Stewart Raffill, a former animal trainer and now film director, and Cheryl Shawver, who had been a young trainer at Jungleland in the 1960s, and who had bought Wells's company, Animal Actors of Hollywood, a few years before. They not only had something to say about Cheeta, but they all had known Gentry. When I began by describing the book I was writing, the three of them shook their heads ruefully.
"It's not true," Wells said. "Tony got that chimp from Wally Ross. Wally was a premier chimp and elephant trainer. He was one of the managers of Pacific Ocean Park on the pier in Santa Monica. When Pacific Ocean Park closed [in 1967], he had a chimp he owned and trained, about 6 or 7, the turning point for a chimp. He said, 'Here, Tony, do you want this chimp?' Tony said, 'I'll take it,' and he took it."
If Cheeta was 6 or 7 when Pacific Ocean park closed, he was born in 1960 or 61.
"You're sure about this?" I asked Wells. "That chimp was Dan Westfall's Cheeta?"
"Absolutely, no doubt, not for a one minute. Absolutely. I'd known Wally since '66, and used him on God knows how many pictures. And that chimp was never in any picture, much less a Johnny Weissmuller picture. The big lie is that he was never in the Tarzan movies, never in 'Doctor Dolittle,' never in any movie."
Although Stewart Raffill speculated that Gentry may have had a previous chimp who was in some Tarzan movies, Wells said, "He never talked about his adventures on Tarzan movies. He never -- ever -- mentioned being on a Tarzan picture. Never. Ever."
When Gentry told stories, Shawver added, "Wally and everybody there, in private, would roll their eyes . . . He just took credit for things he didn't do. He just embellished his stories."
I have to admit I was shaken. We are never prepared for the death of loved ones -- or for the demise of lucrative premises.
"Unfortunately, it's Hollywood, and people do exaggerate," said Raffill.
"Why do you think he did it?" I asked.
"Because it made him feel good!" said Shawver. "You tell stories, people talk to you, you get visitors, you get company. People want to hear that story. Whether it's true or not, they like it."
As I wound my way back to the main road, I thought of what Westfall had told me with pride a few months earlier -- that, on meeting Cheeta in the flesh, Jane Goodall had said, "Why, he doesn't look any older than 45."