OLIVER'S NO GENE GENIE
A chimp or a mutation? A half-human 'missing-link' or simply genetically diseased? After tracking Oliver for over a decade, cryptozoological detective Dr. Karl Shuker is able, at last, to reveal his identity.
Oliver first came to widespread public attention in 1976, when newspapers and magazines worldwide became interested in the strange 'chimpanzee' that New York attorney Michael Miller bought off a travelling animal-act owner called Frank Burger, allegedly for $10,000. The chimplike Oliver was about seven years old and had reputedly been obtained in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). The first clue suggesting that Oliver may not be as other chimps was the reason why Burger had sold him.
According to media accounts, Oliver had never been accepted by Burger's other chimps and could not be trained to perform with them in their stage act. Instead, he preferred to walk on his hind legs, sit crosslegged on a chair, and help Burger's wife, Janet, with the chores around the house.
Oliver also made it clear that he fancied her. Not surprisingly, Janet issued her husband with an adamant proclamation concerning her pesky paramour: "I'm not putting up with this. He's going or I'm going." So Oliver went - sold by Burger to Miller.
It was not only his behaviour, however, that distinguished Oliver from other chimps. Much was made in media reports of his strange morphology. Although his black fur and pinkish-brown skin were run-of-the-mill chimp characteristics, great emphasis was placed upon his bald, seemingly small, egg-shaped cranium (in normal chimps this is more commonly hairier, larger, and flatter), the unexpectedly reduced prominence of his jaws (thereby yielding a somewhat humanoid appearance), his pointed (rather than rounded) ears, and even his freckles. Conflicting accounts were given regarding Oliver's body odour. Some media reports described it as very strong; yet after explorer Lieutenant Colonel John Blashford-Snell had examined him at the 1976 Explorers Club Annual Dinner in New York, he announced in his book Mysteries (1983) that Oliver had little or no body odour.
Odour or no odour, the media bloodhounds pursued the scent that something was not quite right with Oliver. It was claimed (but never substantiated) that, when Miller took Oliver to Japan in the mid-1970s, blood tests conducted by scientists had shown that Oliver had 47 chromosomes - one more than humans, one less than chimps.
Inevitably, these contentious claims (eventually fully disproved) prompted all manner of bizarre identities for Miller's eggheaded enigma. If Oliver were a Down's Syndrome chimp, as some asserted, he would have possessed an extra chromosome (i.e. 49), not one chromosome less than normal for chimps. Others speculated that he might be a mutant form of chimp, or a new sub-species or even species of chimp. Scaling ever further up the ladder of improbable identities, Oliver might be a hybrid of common chimp Pan troglodytes and bonobo (pygmy chimp, P. paniscus); a specimen of the elusive hairy man-beast of West Africa termed the sehite... or even a crossbreed of chimp and sehite. Most radical of all - could Oliver be the offspring of a chimpanzee-human mating? In an item on African mystery primates in the Reader's Digest compendium volume Man and Beast (1993), I opined that Oliver was merely a western African chimp - but with much more dramatic options on offer, the media never paid much attention to this in their reportage.
During the late 1970s and through the 1980s, Oliver vanished from the headlines, but was often exhibited as a freak or 'missing link' at various sideshows. In 1977, Michael Miller sold him to Ralph Helfer, partner in a Californian theme park called Enchanted Village. When the park closed down later that year, Helfer continued exhibiting Oliver in a new venture, Gentle Jungle, which changed locations a few times until it closed down in 1982. Oliver was transferred to the Wild Animal Training Center at Riverside, California, owned by Ken Decroo, but he was allegedly sold by Decroo in 1985. The last trainer to own Oliver was Bill Rivers.
In 1989, Oliver was purchased by the Buckshire Corporation, a Pennsylvanian laboratory leasing out animals for scientific and cosmetic testing. Mercifully, he was never used in experiments, but for the next seven years his home was a 7 x 5ft (2.1 x 1.5m) cage, whose restricted size resulted in his muscles becoming atrophied so much that his limbs trembled.
Happily, in 1996, Oliver's confinement came to an end, when he was retired to an animal sanctuary at Boerne in Texas's Hill County. Called Primarily Primates, it offered spacious accommodation and allowed Oliver to return to good health. And as to the news headlines, the sanctuary's director, Wally Swett, was determined to solve the mystery of his celebrity guest's taxonomic identity once and for all.
Swett asked Chicago University geneticist Dr David Ledbetter to examine Oliver's chromosomes, which he did in autumn 1996. His studies revealed that Oliver had 48, not 47, chromosomes, thus disproving the earlier claim and confirming that he had a normal chromosome count for a chimpanzee. Swett, however, desired further analyses to pin-point Oliver's precise status. Accordingly, he persuaded DNA analysis expert Dr John fly from Texas's Trinity University and cytogeneticist Dr Charleen Moore from Texas University's Health Science Center to conduct the most extensive genetic studies ever undertaken with Oliver. Their results were published in 1998 by the American Journal of Physical Anthropology and disclosed the following.
Standard chromosomal studies fully supported Ledbetter's findings that Oliver had the diploid chromesome count expected for chimpanzees (i.e. 48 or 24 pairs). They also revealed that his chromosomes possessed banding patterns typical for the common chimpanzee but different from those of humans and bonobos, thereby excluding any possibility of Oliver being a hybrid.
Moreover, when they sequenced a specific portion (312 bp region) of the D-loop region of Oliver's mitochondrial DNA they discovered that its sequence corresponded very closely indeed with that of the Central African subspecies of common chimpanzee; the closest correspondence of all was with a chimp specimen from Gabon in Central-West Africa. This all strongly suggests that Oliver also originated from this region and is simply a common chimp - an identity entirely consistent, therefore, with my own little-publicised opinion from 1993.
After decades of mystery, Oliver's identity had finally been uncovered, exposed by his genes. But what of his external idiosyncrasies? Fly and Moore's paper contained some eye-opening infermation dating back to the 1970s, but which was presumably not sensational enough to attract the interest of the media and thus had not previously received publicity.
For instance, although media accounts had noted that Oliver was toothless (his teeth had been pulled), they had not revealed that primatologist Dr Clifford Jolly had examined Oliver as long ago as 1976. Jolly found that Oliver did not share the strikingly prognathous (projecting) jaw line of other chimps due to resorption of the alveolar bone, a shortened maxilla and premaxilla (upper jaw bones), and underdeveloped temporal musculature. Jolly had concluded that these features were in turn caused by Oliver's toothless condition. He also concluded that Oliver's habitual bipedal gait was due to conditioning.
As for Oliver's cranial morphology, ear shape, freckles and baldness, these were nothing more than individual variations, well within the range of variability exhibited by the common chimpanzee - a species that presents, in the words of primatologist Professor W.C. Osman Hill: "a bewildering variety of individual variations".
Although no longer special in taxonomic terms, Oliver is destined forever to remain a classic example of how media hype and sensationalist publicity can create with Frankensteinian fervour a veritable monster from the most mundane of animals.
Cryptozoologists everywhere, take note - remember the time a chimp made a chump of the world's media. Let us all hope that Oliver can now live the remainder of his days in peace, far away from the unwelcome media glare that has blighted this mild-mannered, highly-intelligent being's often traumatic and tumultuous life.
KARL SHUKER has had a lifelong interest in cryptozoology. He is a zoological consultant, lecturer and author of books devoted to the subject of cryptozoology.
© Fortean Times (FT120) March 1999.
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