Cheeta is no ordinary chimp. The broad-faced beast, with bright eyes, a winning smile, immense hands that you don't shake for fear of losing fingers, and a shriek that can be heard for blocks, appeared on-screen as Cheeta with old-time movie actor Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan. "Supposedly," Westfall says, "though I can't say for sure. It's what my uncle said. He stretched the truth on some of what he said."
Westfall's uncle, Hollywood animal trainer Tony Gentry, claimed Cheeta also starred with Ronald Reagan in the movie 'Bedtime for Bonzo.'
None of it's true, author R.D. Rosen decided a few years back—in part, by comparing Cheeta's ears with the ears of the chimps in the movies. Westfall's Cheeta, Rosen decided, was show biz, all right—but not Tarzan-level show biz. The chimp had performed for years at Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica, Rosen said.
"It appears that the facts of our Cheeta's past will almost certainly remain a Hollywood mystery," Westfall concedes on his website, cheetathechimp.org.
Westfall loves his chimp, star or no, and spends most of his time in his company—along with Jeeter, Cheeta's nephew.
Westfall and Cheeta used to perform together in an animal act, but now they spend their time entertaining visitors—primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall has come by, as have actresses Carol Channing and Tippi Hedren. Cheeta also paints abstractions that have been shown locally and are available on their website.
Man and ape are on a mission, through their nonprofit, the C.H.E.E.T.A. Primate Sanctuary, Inc. "We work together to stop the use of these animals in the movies," Westfall says. "A lot of them have been mistreated terribly."
The atrium of an Eichler home in San Jose has been turned into the best of all possible worlds for an irrepressible cockatoo named Nikki.
Nikki, a 25-year-old, foot-tall, rose-breasted cockatoo, inhabits an immense seven-foot-tall birdhouse—his owners do not appreciate the term 'cage'—that fits easily into the atrium, which was roofed in by a prior owner.
"It's almost like having a bird atrium on wheels," says Diana Rich, who co-parents Nikki with her partner, Lynn Kraus.
"He can see outside and can see the family activities, but yet he's just slightly at the edge of it," Lynn adds. "So he can get into the corner of his cage and go to sleep if he wants." Nikki also appreciates the light that fills the home.
"We leave the cage door open all the time," Diana says. "He'll walk into the room and talk to us." He also perches on platforms attached to the cage.
"He'll come out on his verandah and chat," Lynn says. "He's a bit of a character," Diana chimes in. "It's like having a perpetual two-year-old in the house."
"We tend to dote on Nikki like he's our kid," she says, adding, "He does own our Eichler."
Nikki's not the only animal around the house. Diana and Lynn own two cats, and their backyard attracts wildlife that gets close enough to Nikki to prove entertaining but not too close to seem threatening. "He watches the birds and cats and possums in the backyard. I think it's really great for him to have that," Diana says.
Lynn adds, "But he's far enough inside not to be menaced by raccoons."
She and Lynn enjoy watching TV with Nikki, who sits in Lynn's lap for a while, then Diana's. "And he loves getting pets and scratches," Diana says.
Photos: David Toerge, Arthur Colkeman, Dave Weinstein, Art Ribbel; and courtesy Lynn Drake, Jeff Sheldon, Merritt Johnson, Margaret Chester, Diana Rich
For more modern pets see our spotlight on pet accessories, "Pet Therapy."