Palm Harbor, Florida -- Before there was Lassie, Benji, or even Winter the Dolphin, there was Cheetah the chimpanzee.
The animal actor from 1930's Tarzan movies lived out his golden years at an animal sanctuary in Palm Harbor, before dying earlier this week at the age of 80. Now caretakers at the sanctuary are coping with the loss of their most famous primate.
Photo Gallery: Chimpanzees at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary
"I'll never forget him," says Debbie Cobb, choking back tears.
When she was just five years old, Debbie's grandparents, who started what's now the the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, first introduced her to Cheetah the chimp.
A little over a week ago, Cheetah wasn't feeling well, and Debbie knew it.
"My husband asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I said, 'To stay by Cheetah's side 24/7.'"
And so Debbie did, and she watched him take his final breath when he died of kidney failure on Christmas Eve.
Chimpanzees normally live to be around 30 something in the wild... maybe 50 in captivity. At 80 years old, Cheetah was a rarity.
Staff members say it's been like losing a member of their family.
Mindy Bickey, a sanctuary volunteer for the past 10 years, says the chimps are almost human, "and he knew how much we cared about him."
Suncoast officials recognize they have a challenge going forward, raising money after their best know resident has passed away.
But they hope those who were touched in some way by Cheetah might be willing to donate money to help them build a medical hospital.
"I know what he did for everybody in the movies. Now it's time for them to give back in his memory," said Cobb.
The primate sanctuary has already seen an outpouring of sympathy both online, and from visitors.
Jennifer and Lee Shoup visiting with their grandsons today were saddened by the news.
"I watched all the Tarzan movies," said Jennifer, "I loved him."
Paula Whitesell, visiting from Indiana says she remembers her father taking her to the theater to see Tarzan movies when she was just a little girl. And Cheetah?
"I feel like he could act. I really did," said Whitesell, "He was almost human."
Suncoast is still in the process of planning a more formal farewell for Cheetah, hoping to build on his legacy. But Debbie Cobb admits the simian star will be one tough act to follow.
"He touched my life in no way any other animal will ever touch my life. No way," she said.
Debbie says Cheetah had lived at Suncoast since the 1960's and had always been in good health.
The sanctuary is open to the public. For more information, or to donate, click here.