"Missing Link" Retiree in The Texas Hill Country
(The Story Of Oliver)
BOERNE -- His days on the freak circuit and on tabloid covers as the fabled ``missing link,'' are finally behind him, as are seven lost years in a medical research laboratory.
Now, Oliver, a mild-mannered, middle-aged ape that walks upright like a human, is taking a well-deserved Hill Country retirement, but is no less a scientific mystery than he first appeared 25 years ago.
"Oliver's had a real strange and sordid history. He was exploited tremendously for his very unusual morphological characteristics,'' said Ken DeCroo, a California anthropologist and animal trainer who owned him a decade ago and, like others, has not forgotten him. "His physical appearance was rather different than most chimps. He's bipedal, which means he walks on two feet, and that is very unusual. And another aspect is his very small head,'' he said.
Others have noted Oliver's peculiar smell, eye coloring, bird-like voice and various mannerisms as being very un-chimp-like. And then there is Oliver's sense of himself. "He was not like normal chimps and other chimps didn't get along with him too well. He preferred to be with humans,'' recalled Bill Rivers, another former owner. But Oliver has mellowed with the years. Since May, when he and 11 other chimps were retired from the Buckshire Corp., a research center in Pennsylvania, Oliver has shared a spacious open-air cage with other chimps at Primarily Primates.
Wally Swett, director of the primate sanctuary, said his newest celebrity guest is adapting well, and, after years in isolation, has formed an attachment. "He's bonded with one little female,'' said Swett.
"And he understands a lot and is quite cooperative. And he's not like other male chimps which can get quite grabby and aggressive,'' he said.
Old news accounts assert that Oliver has 47 chromosomes, one more than a human, one less than a chimpanzee, but there are no records to confirm it. Quite soon, possibly for the first time, Oliver will undergo sophisticated blood and genetic analysis to resolve, once and for all, exactly who or what he is.
"The prevailing view is that Oliver is simply a mutant chimp. Others think he may be a cross between a common chimp and a pygmy chimp, and soon we'll be able to make a determination,'' said Dr. Gordon Gallup, an anthropology professor at the University of New York at Albany.
But, said Gallup, who has lectured about Oliver in his evolutionary psychology course, there are other possibilities holding infinitely more complicated implications. "It's difficult to know for sure, but I think there is reason to suspect that Oliver may be a human-chimpanzee hybrid. It turns out that humans and chimps are at least 99 percent identical in terms of basic biological chemistry, and you can get hybrids among much more diverse creatures than that,'' he said.
Rumors of such taboo experiments being conducted in China, Italy and the United States have persisted for years, but have never been acknowledged. Could Oliver be the result of clandestine genetic alchemy? The answer may come after a blood sample -- to be taken from Oliver at an upcoming medical examination -- are tested at the University of Chicago, allowing scientists there to finally determine his genetic pedigree.
"Let you imagination run wild. It has such mind-boggling implications for things like religion, and whether such a creature would be covered by the Bill of Rights. It could make people think about their relationship to evolution,'' said Gallup. "But until there is some evidence either way, it's simply an academic exercise rather than anything you can take seriously,'' he said.
Dr. David Ledbetter, who will do the testing, said genetics technology will allow him to determine if Oliver is a normal or mutant chimp, and if he proves to be a hybrid, his parentage. "It seems a little silly to me to have all this rumor and controversy floating around when its a very straightforward thing to do the chromosome analysis,'' he said. A spokesperson for the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta, the most prestigious primate research facility in the country, said scientists there had never heard of Oliver.
Oliver surfaced in the early 1970s, when he was acquired as a baby by trainers Frank and Janet Burger whose dog, chimp, pony and pig acts were once regularly featured on the Ed Sullivan Show, at Radio City Music Hall, and once even by dancer Gene Kelly. "He came in from Africa with three other chimps that one of Frank's brothers had sent over from the Congo. But this one we could never use. He was odd and the other chimps would have nothing to do with him,'' recalled Janet Burger, 69. But if Oliver was strange in appearance, and was shunned by other chimps, his intelligence and personality were also quite different from the other apes in the Burgers' entourage.
"You could send him on chores. He would take the wheelbarrow and empty the hay and straw from the stalls. And when it was time to feed the dogs, he would get the pans, and mix the dog food for me. I'd get it ready and he'd mix it,'' she said. As he grew older, Oliver also acquired habits normally enjoyed only by humans, including a cup of coffee and a nightcap. "This guy, Oliver, he enjoyed sitting down at night and having a drink, and watching television. He'd mix his own. He'd pour a shot of whiskey and put some Seven-Up in there, stir it and drink it,'' she recalled.
Oliver also displayed emotions not normally associated with chimpanzees, including tears of remorse at temporary separations. But ultimately, it was another of Oliver's human like traits that forced the Burgers to sell him. By 1976, when he was approaching sexual maturity, Oliver was turning into a masher.
"He had sex on his mind. The old hormones flared up but he didn't care about the female chimps we had, he started trying to have sex with me and any other woman,'' recalled Burger. "I was leery of him. He was as strong as five men, so I told my husband, "I'm not putting up with this. He's going or I'm going," so we sold him to Michael Miller and his partner for $8,000,'' she said.
Miller, a New York City lawyer, had seen dollar signs in Oliver, and took him on the road, including Japan, where newspaper accounts report that 26 million Japanese viewed him.
In the United States and overseas, breathless speculation raged over the ape with the shaved head. Was he "the baby Bigfoot?'' A mutant or hybrid chimp? Or perhaps a newly discovered primitive African humanoid? Miller also hinted at the unspeakable: An ape-human hybrid.
In press accounts of the time, Miller said he intended for Oliver to undergo a full battery of scientific tests to determine his identity, but the results, if any, were never made public. After belonging to Miller for several years, Oliver was owned by a series of West Coast animal trainers, beginning with Ralph Helfer, owner of Enchanted Village in Buena Park, Ca., where Oliver was exhibited as a freak. "They had two or three shows a day. I'd just walk him out on stage while another fellow talked about him. They had theories that he was half-man, half-ape. That was part of the show,'' recalled Bill Rivers, who years later would be the last animal trainer to own Oliver. "It was just like seeing a space alien,'' he said.
Oliver later became part of Helfer's menagerie at Gentle Jungle doing occasional television commercials and shows. But when the facility closed he was given to Ken DeCroo who had worked there. DeCroo, an anthropologist and animal trainer, said Oliver was unlike any of the hundreds of chimps he had worked with in both research and commercial settings. "It was very hard to predict what was happening in that brain and generally he acted more human than chimp in a lot of settings,'' recalled DeCroo.
"This is the classic example. Very often I would sit him down in the living room with me to drink coffee. And one time he was out of coffee. I never trained him to do this, but maybe he knew it from the past. He got up from the table, walked into the kitchen, picked up the coffee pot, poured coffee into my cup, then into his, and then took the pot back into the kitchen,'' he said. "But here's the chimp part. He's making a terrible mess. His brain is telling him what to do, but his body isn't quite doing it. But he had the awareness. He understood where all the elements fit and that I was out of coffee. It was shocking,'' he said. DeCroo is now struggling to put Oliver down on paper. "I'll tell you how much Oliver has affected me in my life. I'm writing a novel, which is very much fiction, but is very much based on Oliver,'' he said.
"It's about researchers in a university that decide to do the experiment: man and ape. This experiment is quite possible, but would you do it?" he asked. "In deciding that, you can imagine the ramifications both ethically and scientifically. And what do you do with the creature in the end? It's quite an adventure and Oliver inspired it,'' he said.
DeCroo said in 1986, when he closed his animal compound, he sold Oliver to Bill Rivers with the understanding Oliver would be given a decent retirement. When he heard later Oliver had ended up at a research facility he was remorseful. "He was a good friend and I've always felt guilty. I failed Oliver. I really thought he wasn't going anywhere,'' said DeCroo. But Rivers said he eventually sold Oliver to the Buckshire Corporation, where he languished for almost seven years, when the ape proved too difficult to keep. "He couldn't get along with the other chimps. I was doing a lot of traveling. I really didn't have a place for him,'' said Rivers.
According to Buckshire president Sharon Hursh, Oliver showed signs of a rough treatment, but was never used for research. "When we got him, we gave him an entrance physical and it was evident to us he'd had a pretty tough life. Somewhere along the line, he must have been a tough chimp. He had scars that indicated rough handling,'' she said. "We basically purchased him for laboratory research but he was never used. He just sort of ate, kicked back and slept all day,'' she said. Fortunately for Oliver, others did not forget him.
Vincent Pace, a concert pianist and circus ochestra leader, met Oliver when the Burgers were traveling with the Vargas Circus in the early 1970's. But when Oliver was put up for sale in 1976, Pace said he was outbid by Miller, the New York lawyer. "I lost track of him totally for 20 years,'' said Pace.
"But two years ago I came into a big sum of money and I made a list of things I wanted to do. I wanted to buy a new Rolls Royce, I wanted a face lift and I wanted a new baby chimp. And in searching for a new chimp, I bumped into Oliver at the Buckshire,'' he said. Initially, he said, the Buckshire appeared willing to release Oliver. "I spent $70,000 to build a room on my house here for him. It's all plexi-glass, stainless steel and Formica. He'd have private eating quarters,'' he said. But after his attempt to get Oliver failed, said Pace, he was glad to see him and 11 other Buckshire chimps end up with Primarily Primates in Boerne.
"I'd lived without him for so long, I thought getting him out and into anybody's hands would be better than him being where he was,'' said Pace. "Someday I'll go to Texas and see Oliver before he dies. This animal is almost human in his emotions,'' he said.
Regardless of the outcome of the genetic testing, Oliver will enjoy a peaceful and permanent refuge in Boerne, said Swett. "He's been dragged around and exploited for over 20 years, but this is his final retirement. He'll never go into research or on exhibit again,'' said Swett. "In terms of significant scientific findings, we'll play it by ear, but never to the point of inconveniencing Oliver,'' he said. END
Source: By John MacCormack, Express-News Staff Writer for "The Express-News Online"
Contributed to this website by Marlene Trask.
More On Oliver
By Dr. John J. Ely
I found a good deal of interest amongst primatologists in our poster on Oliver at the ASP meetings in San Diego last summer, and I thought a recent publication on Oliver might be of interest to Primate-Talkers. Oliver has been in and out of the media spotlight (including Time magazine and several major newspapers) since the early 1970s, as different owners promoted his bipedal locomotion and shaved head as evidence that he was a cryptic, bipedal African man ape. (Some of these rumors are truly astonishing, for example, that he prepared his own martinis and smoked cigars.)
Unsubstantiated rumors that cytogeneticists determined Oliver's karyotype to be 2N=47, midway between a human and a chimpanzee, led to further popular suggestions that he was a "sport" or a human-chimp hybrid. Two years ago, Science published a news report that Oliver the "'mutant' chimp" was getting a "gene check"
(1). Since then, the cytogenetic analysis alluded to in that report has been completed, along with mtDNA sequencing and homology comparisons to African chimpanzees of known geographical origins, and just published in the AJPA
(2). Our results indicate that Oliver is a member of the Pan troglodytes troglodytes subspecies from Central Africa, has 48 normal chimpanzee chromosomes, and was likely trapped in Gabon. Full details behind our conclusions can be found in our report
(3). I might add that, from what I have seen so far, those who really want to believe in highly intelligent, bipedal African man-apes ("Apamandi" and whatnot) who continue to elude field primatologists, the bushmeat market etc, will not be dissuaded by any amount of evidence. The persistence of these deeply-rooted beliefs, as psychological facts, are an interesting phenomenon in their own right.
As luck would have it, I have been told that the Lifetime television station is re-broadcasting an episode of "Unsolved Mysteries" tonight (Friday 27 March, 1998 7:00 CST), which contains a segment on Oliver, including a clip of his infamous bipedal gait.
1. Science, 1996. "Mutant" Chimp Gets Gene Check. Science 274: 727.
2. Ely, J.J., Leland, M., Martino, M., Swett, W., and Moore, C.M., 1998.
Technical report: chromosomal and mtDNA analysis of Oliver.
American Journal of Physical Anthropology 105(3): 395-403.
Dr. John J. Ely, Ph.D.
Department of Biology
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