Oliver the chimpanzee first gained public attention in the 1970s due to his distinctive appearance and human-like behaviour, particularly his habit of walking upright instead of on all fours. The media at the time often referred to Oliver by a variety of speculative titles such as the 'missing link', a baby 'bigfoot' or more commonly as a 'humanzee - a cross between a human being and a chimpanzee. Because humans and chimps share much of their DNA it is conjectured that cross-breeding would be possible. There are even rumours that experiments to create a humanzee have been carried out.
Oliver's curious appearance and characteristics led to a series of owners exploiting him in sideshows and television commercials. Oliver's life has not been an entirely easy one; he has endured more than he should have at the whim of his human associates, while at times challenging our perception of ourselves.
Frank and Janet Burger
Oliver's first owners were Frank and Janet Burger, a husband and wife team who trained and worked with performing animals. Oliver was captured from the wild1 in Central Africa and brought to America at the age of two by Frank's brother. Frank and Janet soon began to realise that Oliver was different from other chimpanzees.
In a Discovery Channel documentary about Oliver, Janet described what made him so distinctive. Firstly, Oliver had a different scent from other chimpanzees, who shunned him, although he seemed to prefer the company of humans anyway. Oliver apparently liked watching television and smoking the occasional cigar. He also enjoyed coffee and a night-time shot of whiskey that he would pour himself and mix with 7-Up.
Oliver's remarkable intelligence was also a surprise to those who met him. Janet mentioned that he would carry out certain chores, such as taking straw from the barn in a wheelbarrow, and helping her to feed the dogs by getting their bowls and mixing the food - all without being asked or trained to do so.
Oliver's physical characteristics also singled him out. His head is about a third smaller than other chimpanzees, his face is flatter giving him a slightly more human appearance and his ears are pointed rather than the usual rounded chimpanzee shape. If there was one feature that caught everyone's attention it was Oliver's preference for walking upright on two legs rather than using his front knuckles like other chimps. Janet has said Oliver was never trained to do this and took to walking upright from a very early age. This is corroborated by the fact that Oliver would lock his legs at the knees when walking, whereas a trained chimpanzee would walk upright with bent legs. It is this characteristic above all others that later drew attention to him and led to a series of owners exploiting Oliver in their carnivalesque way, which in turn encouraged the popular media to contemplate the possibility of Oliver being a humanzee.
When Oliver became sexually mature he didn't show interest in female chimpanzees but turned his attention to human females. On a number of occasions he tried to forcefully mount Janet, so for her safety it was decided to sell Oliver.
Michael Miller, a New York lawyer and a friend of Frank and Janet, knew Oliver and became his next owner. Miller began to promote Oliver as a humanzee and arranged for him to visit Japan to appear on television and to undergo tests. The trip went ahead on the pretext of scientific interest but it quickly became apparent it was almost entirely showmanship. On the plane, Oliver was filmed in a seat while a flight attendant served him food and drink, giving the impression that he flew to Japan like a human. He had, however, only been removed from his cage for this staged event.
Once in Japan, Oliver was paraded as a curiosity around television studios shackled by the neck to a leash. Some tests were carried out during his time there. It was reported that Oliver had 47 chromosomes, one less than chimpanzees and one more than humans, which is what would be expected if Oliver was a humanzee. However, as the results were never published, there was no possibility of substantiating them, allowing the speculation and media interest to persist.
After a few years, in 1977, Miller sold Oliver to Ralph Helfer, the owner of a theme park in California called Enchanted Village. When this facility closed down later that year, Helfer used Oliver in his new venture, another park called Gentle Jungle, which eventually closed in 1982.
A previous employee of Helfer named Ken DeCroo was Oliver's next owner. He transferred him to the Wild Animal Training Center at Riverside, California. DeCroo later described how he and Oliver were once sitting in the house drinking coffee. When their cups were empty Oliver went to the kitchen and fetched the coffee pot. He refilled DeCroo's cup, then his own, and then took the pot back to the kitchen. If this is true2 and is not trained behaviour, it is remarkable. Primatologists have long speculated on whether chimpanzees are conscious beings and can empathise with others. Clearly if Oliver saw Decroo was out of coffee and filled his cup, this shows an ability to understand DeCroo as another mind and to empathise with him.
DeCroo sold Oliver to Bill Rivers in 1985 on the understanding that he would be given a good retirement. However, Rivers found Oliver difficult to work with because he did not get on well with other chimpanzees, so by 1989 he sold Oliver to the Buckshire Corporation, a laboratory in Pennsylvania that leases animals for use in scientific experimentation. When he arrived at Buckshire, Oliver showed signs of rough treatment. Although he was never used in experiments, he spent seven years confined to a cage five feet by nine feet in size, which caused his muscles to atrophy so much he constantly trembled.
In 1996 Sharon Hursh, the President of the Buckshire Corporation, released Oliver and 11 other chimpanzees into the care of Primarily Primates, a non-profit sanctuary originally set up by Wallace Swett to protect and rehabilitate non-native animals. Their focus is mostly on primates.
When the chimpanzees arrived at Primarily Primates, they walked out of their transport boxes on all fours - except one. Oliver left his box and walked upright around his enclosure.
During a routine check at Primarily Primates, a blood sample was taken from Oliver to finally settle the questions raised about him. The results show that he has the normal 48 chimpanzee chromosomes. Oliver is a common chimpanzee of the Pan troglodytes troglodytes subspecies of Central Africa and he was likely caught in Gabon.
At the time of writing, Oliver is now blind, is known to have suffered a number of strokes and no longer walks upright due to arthritis. He does however have a large enclosed open air space in which to enjoy the rest of his days. He apparently has also found a chimpanzee companion called Raisin3 to share his enclosure with.
Although interest in Oliver has always focused on his unusual appearance and human-like behaviour, which in turn has generated conjecture about the possibility he is a humanzee, this is not the real story of his life. Instead it is our relationship with chimpanzees and how we choose to treat them that is the true story Oliver represents.