Monday, November 14, 2005

The Mystery of Oliver

Meet Oliver, a mild-mannered, middle-aged ape that walks upright like a human being and has been called a “mystery” and/or “missing link” for years. He is now taking a well-deserved Hill Country Texas retirement, but he is no less a scientific mystery now than when he first appeared 25 years ago. Let’ take a closer look at this amazing creature…

"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.

"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 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.

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 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. The Burgers, unable to keep Oliver sold him in 1976 to Michael Miller, a New York City lawyer, who 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.

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.

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 Boerne, Texas.

"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 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. Missing link? Who knows, but Oliver is another reason to keep walking this big weird world of ours.


I’m Average Joe

email: OurWeirdWorld@gmail.com

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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