"Oliver's had a real strange and sordid history. He was exploited tremendously for his very unusual morphological characteristics,'' said Ken DeCroo, a
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
"He understands a lot and is quite cooperative. And he's not like other male chimps which can get quite grabby and aggressive,'' said Wally Swett, director of the primate sanctuary where Oliver will live out his life.
Old news accounts assert that Oliver has 47 chromosomes, one more than a human, one less than a chimpanzee. 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
Rumors of such taboo experiments being conducted in
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.
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
"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. The Burgers, unable to keep Oliver sold him in 1976 to Michael Miller, a
After belonging to Miller for several years, Oliver was owned by a series of West Coast animal trainers, beginning with Ralph Helfer, owner of
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.
DeCroo said in 1986, when he closed his animal compound, he sold Oliver 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 eventually, after passing through the hands of several others Oliver found his way to Primarily Primates in
"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 one previous owner. "Someday I'll go to
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. Missing link? Who knows, but Oliver is another reason to keep walking this big weird world of ours.
I’m Average Joeemail: OurWeirdWorld@gmail.com