Chimp seems unique, but not a missing link
By Thaddeus Herrick
Copyright 1997 Houston Chronicle San Antonio Bureau 3:24 PM 1/10/1997
SAN ANTONIO -- No, Oliver was not human/he died June 2, 2012 at the age of 55 ...his ashes
were scattered on the grounds of Primarily Primates in Texas. (Karl Shuker)
But whether the easygoing, middle-aged chimpanzee who walks upright and once enjoyed a nightcap while watching TV is an ape hybrid, a mutant or an entirely new species is still unclear.
"There is no evidence of a human-chimpanzee hybrid," said David Ledbetter, a University of Chicago geneticist who conducted the first-ever DNA test on the chimp that for years was hailed on the freak-show circuit and in tabloids as the so-called missing link between man and monkey.
Ledbetter's testing, 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 walking on two feet --which continue to generate heated debate among a small group of Oliver aficionados.
"Oliver is unique and there's a reason why," said Wally Swett, director of Primarily Primates in Boerne, the Hill Country primate rehabilitation center where the almost 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," said Ely.
A scientific mystery for 25 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 at 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 sold when he began to express sexual interest in his female owner and other women.
Soon a New York City lawyer named 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 than a human and one less than a chimpanzee. But freak-show promoters were 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 his all-fours also held out the possibility that Oliver was part human.
"Humans and chimps are at least 99 percent identical in terms of basic biological chemistry," said Gordon Gallup of the University of New York at Albany last fall before the testing. "And you can get hybrids among much more diverse creatures than that."
But Ledbetter's findings dashed such theories, which 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," said Ledbetter. "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 thinks Oliver may be a "mutant chimp" or an altogether new species.
"We're all disappointed with David (Ledbetter)," said Swett. "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 that 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 is preparing a feature on his aging chimpanzee. And he predicts exciting results from Ely, the Trinity University geneticist.
Such scientific scrutiny apparently has had little impact on Oliver, who was purchased for research by the Buckshire 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 that kind of soured," said Swett. "He still prefers to be by himself, go to bed at 3 in the afternoon, that kind of thing."
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