Sun, Apr 15, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Tarzan's Cheeta, now the oldest swinger in town

The chimpanzee star of the Tarzan movies turned 75 this week. You may be surprised for how long some animals live

By Laura Barton  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

There is something stately in the way that animals grow old, something inherently more graceful than our perpetual scrabbling for youth, our lotions and potions, our plastic surgery, our care homes. "Old age, calm, expanded, broad with the haughty breadth of the universe," as Walt Whitman once put it.

This week, Cheeta, the chimp from the original Tarzan films, reached the splendid age of 75 (though he has a few years to go before reaching the 79 clocked up by his co-star Johnny Weissmuller). Diabetic Cheeta, his fur now speckled with grey, celebrated with sugar-free cake and diet soft drinks at his home in the legendary retirement destination of Palm Springs, California, where he passes his days watching TV, painting and playing the piano.

Cheeta is cited by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's oldest primate (that should be non-human primate, of course, but perhaps they were confused by his lifestyle). But verifying such titles is a difficult business. Consider the case of Adwaita the tortoise, who once belonged to the British colonial general Clive of India in the 18th century.

One Wednesday last month, Adwaita was found dead in his enclosure in Alipore Zoo. His death was not unexpected -- his shell had cracked some months before and a wound had developed, and he was, after all, somewhat advanced in life: West Bengal officials said records showed Adwaita was at least 150 years old, but other evidence suggested he was more like 255. It will take carbon-dating of his shell to determine his true age. At 255, Adwaita would beat Harriet the Galapagos tortoise, who was reportedly collected by Charles Darwin, and died aged 175 last year, and Tu'i Malila, the radiated tortoise given to the royal family of Tonga by Captain James Cook, and who passed over aged 188 in 1965.

The age of a fish is calculated in much the same way as one works out the age of a tree by counting its rings; most fish have growth rings on their scales known as annuli.

This technique was used to estimate the age of Hanako, meaning "flower maid", the world's oldest koi carp, who died in 1977 at the age of 226 years.

Goldie, the oldest goldfish, had reached the age of 45 by the time he gasped his last in 2005.

Alas, Goldie never made it to the Guinness Book of World Records because there was no documentary evidence of his age. This is a common problem.

While it is simple to check the age of a pedigree cat, for example, as it will wield a certificate of authenticity, the more common cat comes with no such paperwork. In 2004, Whiskey, a 33-year-old tabby from Essex, staked his claim as Britain's oldest cat, but his owner was unable to prove it conclusively.

As for the world title, the Guinness Book of World Records held that Creme Puff, a cat from Austin, Texas, died in 2005 aged 38 years and three days, though there has been much jostling for the crown.

The title of oldest parrot is also much disputed. Some favor Charlie, a blue macaw allegedly bought by Winston Churchill two years before the start of the second world war, who now resides at a Surrey garden center in southern England, where he fills the air with anti-Nazi tirades.

Charlie's owner, who bought him from a pet shop in 1965, claims that he is 104. Unfortunately, the administrators of Chartwell, Churchill's former country home, state that they have no record of any parrot, while Churchill's daughter, Lady Soames, says her father never owned a macaw (though he did, once, have an African grey parrot named Polly).

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