Cheetah died today. The movie star and consummate clown had long retired to Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Fla., where he enjoyed finger-painting and throwing poop at people he didn't like. He is best known for his starring role in Tarzan movies from 1932-1934. He was 80 years old.
During Cheetah's lifetime he witnessed something quite profound, from a chimp perspective and a human one, too. We changed in our attitudes toward both people and animals--there has been a suffrage movement that has seen us value chimps' lives, and the lives of other animals. This happened even as we have steadily increased our sense of the universal equality of human rights (which includes the civil rights movement in the U.S. and extends all the way to the Arab Spring, and now the Occupy Wall Street movement).
The year that Cheetah starred with, and provided the comic relief to, Johnny Weissmuller the country was deep in the Great Depression. Wall Street had crashed three years earlier, in 1929; banks began to fail in 1930--and we began a tariff war by instituting them on 20,000 imported goods. The bank runs led people to hoard gold and cash, which, technically, makes a depression worse by restricting the money supply.
Then there was a drought, which, together with the the latest farming practices of the day, led to the Dust Bowl. Almost 25 percent of the population was unemployed; 43,000 marchers descended on Washington, D.C., set up campgrounds and asked for cash bonuses to survive. Troops let by General Douglas MacArthur broke up the crowds at bayonet-point-but without firing a shot. The Revenue Act of 1932 raised taxes across the board, including a boost on top incomes from 25 percent to 63 percent. Wages were cut 30 percent. Thousands of Mexicans were forced out of the country.
In other words, Cheetah, if he was reading the papers before his death from kidney failure, had seen this all before.
But what he also saw during his lifetime was the growing movement toward civil rights. For African-Americans, Hispanics and other people of color. For women and children. 1932 was, for example, the beginning of the infamous--and disgraceful--Tuskegee Syphilis Study, conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service. This study followed six hundred low-income African American males, 400 of whom had the disease and were not told about it--and even though a cure was available (penicillin) from the 1950s, the study continued until 1972 with those infected denied treatment. Today we have a half-African-American President.
And equality began to come to animals--to Cheetah, too. The way animals were treated back then was appalling. In the movies, they were routinely injured--something which began to change only in 1940, when the American Humane Society succeeded in getting films to follow--and adopt--the famous No animals were harmed... disclaimer.
In the 1960s and 1970s a more widespread animal rights movement also began to appear. The Animal Welfare Act of 1966, 1970, 1976 and 1985, plus a variety of other state laws and policies about the treatment of lab animals began to change laws and attitudes about research on primates like Cheetah (and other species, too). That is not to everyone's liking. But it is worth observing that as we moved away from seeing people as separate but equal, we appear to be getting more uncomfortable about seeing animals hurt in movies, or their suffering in experimental (or even food-producing) settings. And there is less of such animal cruelty and experimentation every day.
Everyone who has ever known animals--had a pet, for example--knows how human they can be. Now, of course, even though Cheetah shared something like 98 percent of our primate genetic makeup, he was no human. Chimps, to the best of my knowledge, have not developed advanced forms of warfare, nor do they torture each other...although they do taunt, and will kill. They are human in that much.
But, clearly, they also are not, in fact, human. That said, certain people used to think the same of other people. And if rhetoric around the world is to be believed, a fair number of folks still think so, although they are probably just being hyperbolic in describing their enemies.
I think about Cheetah passing away from one of the chronic problems of the human elderly--failing kidneys--and I wonder, from his perspective, at least, what would he think of our species progress, through his long lifetime, in our own struggle--to become human beings?
A long-gone professor of mine, a Confucian scholar, once said that we are all born human animals, but only through development of character do we become human beings. He held kindness and empathy with others in high regard as fundamental to such development. We used to draw the line at people like us.
Now due to an ever-shrinking world, it is becoming ever clearer that we are all us, really, once you strip away the flags and uniforms that divide humans from one another. The photos from every place around the globe, easily viewable on the Internet, show people just like you or me all over doing pretty much the same thing--trying to be happy, to care for those they love, to get along and get by.
It is a slippery slope from the recognition that all people are pretty much like all other people, that is, the universality of human suffrage, to the recognition that all animals--what the Buddhists like to call sentient beings--are connected, too. Beat a dog, beat a chimp, beat a child, beat a man...is there really a good way to prioritize cruelty?
As we mourn the passing of Cheetah, the clown, it's as good a time as any to reflect on the changes--and these are good changes--that he saw in our behavior during his time. We stopped behaving so much like animals--first to each other--then to beings like him. He was very compassionate, Debbie Cobb, outreach director at Suncoast, told Tampa Bay Online.
I like to think he would think kindly toward the species and our progress.