Is he ape? A Man? Or just Oliver?
Chimp once touted as missing link still sparks debate at 40
"There is no evidence of a human-chimpanzee hybrid," said David Ledbetter, a University of Chicago geneticists who conducted the first-ever DNA test on the chimp who for years was hailed on the freak-show circuit and in tabloids as the so-called missing link between human and monkey.
Ledbetter's test, completed amid little hoopla last fall, found no evidence of human chromosomes in the chimp's blood. But his research leaves unexplained Oliver's unchimplike peculiarities and mannerisms - such as waking on two feet - that continue to generate heated debate among a Oliver's small army of aficionados.
"Oliver is unique, and there's a reason why," said Wally Swett, director of Primarily Primates, a primate rehabilitation center in Boerne, Texas, where the most 40-year-old chimp is in retirement. "We want to know."
Frustrated with Ledbetter for not more aggressively pursuing the genetic truth about Oliver, Swett has enlisted the help of John Ely, a scientist at San Antonio's Trinity University. More test results are expected next summer.
"We intend to determine once and for all what the genetic constitution of this chimp is," Ely said. A scientific mystery for years, Oliver surfaced in the early 1970s when he was acquired by a man and woman whose dog, chimp, pony and pig acts won them performances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and a t venues such as New York City's Radio City Music Hall.
Though Oliver enjoyed feeding the dogs and sipping whiskey while watching TV, he was not much of a performer. What's more, his eccentricities seemed to keep the other chimps at a distance. Finally, Oliver was old when he expressed sexual interest in his female owner and other women.
Soon, a New York City lawyer names Michael Miller was marketing Oliver as a sort of missing link, sending the chimpanzee on tour in Japan, where a reported 26 million people viewed him.
Some said Oliver had 47 chromosomes, one more that a human and one fewer than a chimpanzee. But freak-show promoters where not the only ones to entertain bizarre genetic scenarios for Oliver.
Anthropologists, swayed in part by Oliver's small head, pronounced nose and disdain for using all fours, held out the possibility that Oliver was part human. "Humans and chimps are at least 99 percent identical in term of basic biological chemistry," said Gordon Gallup of the State University of New York at Albany last fall before the testing. "And you can get hybrids among much more diverse creatures that that."
However, Ledbetter's findings dashed such theories, with the University of Chicago geneticist dismissed as the stuff of checkout-line tabloids.
Oliver's blood sample, Ledbetter said, showed 48 chromosomes, proof he was not a human-chimp hybrid.
"He's a normal chimp," Ledbetter said. "We haven't found anything that suggests otherwise."
Swett, however, believes Oliver may be an ape hybrid, such as a cross between a chimpanzee and a gorilla or a chimpanzee and pygmy chimp. He also things Oliver might be a "mutant chimp" or an altogether new species.
"We're all disappointed with David (Ledbetter)," Swett said. "He looked for human DNA, and then when he didn't find any, he put the sample aside and never did anything more."
Ledbetter, who promises to publish his genetic findings on Oliver in the next two months, speculated there would be little interest in further research that might help explain Oliver.
Not true, said Swett. In addition to his own interest Swett said the television show "Unsolved Mysteries" was preparing a feature on the aging chimpanzee. And he predicted exiting results from Ely, the Trinity University geneticist.
Such scientific scrutiny apparently has had little impact on Oliver, who was purchased for research by Buckhire Corp. of Pennsylvania in the late 1980s before ending up at a spacious open-air cage at Primarily Primates.
"He was getting
along with a chimp named April, but hat kind of soured," Swett said.
"He still prefers to be by himself, go to bet at 3 in the afternoon,
that kind of thing."
By Thaddeus Herrick
for the San Jose Mercury News 1997
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