We enjoy activities with animals, so I bought a Groupon deal for a primate sanctuary visit. Life got too busy to use it until it was about to expire (typical), and the only day we had available for the whole family to go and visit the simians and chimpanzees was New Year’s Eve (last year–2011).
Worried they might not be open on NYE, I started trying to call, but always got an answering machine. After days with no call back, I started to think maybe they had shut down or were not open during the winter holidays. I finally had the brilliant epiphany to check their website, which told me in huge bold headlines that Cheetah had passed away.
Cheetah, Tarzan’s beloved chimpanzee, had been given to the sanctuary years ago by Johnny Weissmuller, the original Tarzan. Unfortunately, the chimp had passed away on December 24th. (I quickly deduced this may be why they weren’t calling me back.)
Evidently, his death had sparked some pretty big controversy brewing regarding the validity of Cheetah’s identity. The website had a statement issued by the sanctuary’s owner refuting the media claims that this was not the original Cheetah and insisting that her father had received the chimp when she was a child.
Intrigued, I googled Cheetah and found a barrel of monkeys (ha! Get it?) had been unleashed (ha!) in the media from primate experts who insisted this could not possibly be Cheetah. Primates live in captivity for 35-45 years, and this chimp would have to be 80 years old if he was indeed THE Cheetah. The experts blasted the sanctuary’s owner for being a fraud and using the death of the chimp to gain publicity for the sanctuary.
The owner fired back, and so did many residents of the local area who were old enough to remember childhood visits to see Cheetah in the sanctuary. Some even remembered the chimp arriving at the haven back in the 60s. Park volunteers all backed up the owner that this was indeed Cheetah, the same chimp that had been given to her father all those years ago.
Here I was all peeved no one was calling me back, and they were in the midst of mourning and a media scandal!
Cheetah’s funeral was to be held at the sanctuary on New Year’s Eve. (So they were open.)
Now I have a lot of things on my bucket list, and there are many experiences I want with my kids, but I must admit that chimpanzee funeral was not on the list. And yet here it was, an opportunity thrust in our laps by poor Cheetah’s untimely holiday death. I somberly announced to the family that we would indeed be visiting the primate sanctuary, but that it was a sad occasion and there would be a funeral for Cheetah.
I expected my animal-loving housemates to be saddened at this news, but it was quite the opposite. They cracked themselves up with puns and jokes to the point of tears and hysteria.
“A funeral for a chimpanzee? Do we wear monkey suits? Will we toss bananas on the coffin? Do we all scratch our underarms and make ape noises?”
We arrived at the sanctuary a bit early, so we wandered around the park before heading over to Cheetah’s compound for the funeral. The boys protested. Did we really have to go to the funeral? Couldn’t we just keep looking at the other animals? Besides, My Knight helpfully pointed out, we had no bananas to throw. Aaargh.
I felt that since we were at the sanctuary while the funeral was happening we should attend. How often do you get the opportunity to go to a chimpanzee funeral? Especially a celebrity chimpanzee so controversial in the news!
I had expected a few people to be there due to the media attention, but wow! Cheetah had quite the turnout! News cameras, reporters, people crying, people hugging.
They actually had a funeral home director there in a suit, standing by a wooden podium with Cheetah’s guest book and giving out memory cards with Cheetah’s picture and a Bible verse. There was a ominous wooden box with a gold plate engraved “Cheetah” (which put to rest any questions My Knight and the boys had regarding an open coffin.)
They had laminated pictures of Cheetah through the years, and the whole thing was done nicely. Of course, I have no other chimp funerals to compare it to, but I really wasn’t expecting anything so formal. I suddenly felt underdressed and wished we had something to offer. (What’s appropriate for a chimp funeral????)
I stepped forward to put our family’s name in the guest book and at just that moment, the service began. Which meant I was standing front and center right by the funeral table , the speaker, and the news cameras. I tried to step back into the crowd, but the crowd had moved forward to surround me. I looked around me for my family, but they had conveniently disappeared. I alone would be in the midst of Cheetah’s mourning.
The owner talked of her childhood with Cheetah, and the handlers each spoke, crying as they remembered their personal moments with the great chimp. I felt a wave of sadness rush over me. This was so much more than a headline or something funny My Knight could tell people I took him to.
These people had lost a loved one. They had lost someone that was a part of their daily lives, and their hearts were breaking at that loss. I began to cry with them as they shared stories of him loving Starbucks and throwing poop. Because I was front and center, each of them made and held eye contact with me, so I nodded and cried and sympathized the best I could.
I looked again for my family, and caught a glimpse of Dr. Smooth, whom I motioned over to me. I asked him where My Knight was, and he pointed to my gallant companion asleep in a chair underneath a tree. “Go get him right this minute and tell him to come over here for the funeral!”
My Knight worked through the crowd just as they announced that someone wanted to sing a song for Cheetah.
A small, elderly lady pulled out a pitch pipe and blew awkwardly into it a couple of times before starting the most off-key a cappella rendition of “Draw Me Closer, Lord, to Thee” you have ever heard. And who knew that song had FOUR verses, repeating the chorus between each one? You think karaoke with a bad singer is uncomfortable, try an ear-screeching gospel a cappella at a chimpanzee funeral with dead silence all around, (no pun intended).
Around the start of the second verse, My Knight buried his head in the back of my neck, and I could feel him shaking slightly. What’s this? Could it be that he is finally feeling something? Is this song emotional for him? Was it maybe played at his dad’s funeral or in a childhood church memory? I turned my head slightly and whispered, “Are you alright, honey?”
“Don’t move,” he replied. “I am about to lose it.”
He was LAUGHING. And laughing so hard that both our bodies were shaking with him hiding in my back. I am sure that somewhere in this world there is a news reel from Cheetah’s funeral that shows a man overcome by grief and burying his sorrows in his wife’s back.
When the song finally ended, the owner stepped up and asked us to join her in prayer on Cheetah’s behalf. There is no hellfire-and-brimstone preacher that has ever prayed a longer prayer, even in the best tent revival. She remembered everyone that had ever had anything to do with Cheetah. She called out his media enemies and naysayers. And when the liturgy finally ended, she closed in Jesus’s AND CHEETAH’S names. Oh boy.
As we were leaving, one of the more emotional handlers was walking towards us on the sidewalk. Now I am an empathetic soul, people, and I can’t have someone walk right past me in obvious suffering and not acknowledge it.
“I am so sorry for your loss,” I said.
She smiled through her tears and grabbed both my hands in hers. “Thank you so much for being here. It means so much to us to have all of you here. Please just share with me how Cheetah has changed your life, and it will make me feel better.”
My family had left me again. They disappeared as though they were wearing invisible cloaks.
“Um, well,” I struggled. I wanted to help her. I wanted to share with her, to support her, to comfort her. But I had nothing. I didn’t even know this sanctuary existed before the Groupon, much less that Cheetah (maybe) was here. But her heart was breaking and I had to try.
“Um, we didn’t have the….opportunity…to know Cheetah, unfortunately. But we have…..been soooooo…blessed…to um, share, in your um, memories of him today. He was….truly….an incredible, um, life force. And I am so sorry for your loss.”
And I was sorry for her loss. And I need to stop buying Groupons. And I can cross chimpanzee funeral off my bucket list where I had hastily scratched it in the night before.