Oliver the chimpanzee

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Early media photograph of Oliver

Oliver (c. 1958 – 2 June 2012[1]) was a former performing ape once promoted as a missing link or "Humanzee" due to his unusually human-like face and a tendency to walk upright. Despite his somewhat unusual appearance and behavior, scientists determined in the 1990s that Oliver was not a human-chimpanzee hybrid.[2] Research strongly suggests that Oliver was a common chimpanzee from the Gabon region.[2]

Early life[edit]

Oliver was acquired as a young animal (around 2 years old[3][not in citation given]) in 1960 by trainers Frank and Janet Berger. Supposedly, the chimpanzee had been caught in the Congo.[1][3] Some physical and behavioral evidence led the Bergers to believe Oliver was a creature other than a chimpanzee, perhaps a human-chimp hybrid: Oliver possessed a flatter face than his fellow chimpanzees; Oliver was habitually bipedal (before being struck with arthritis), never walking on his knuckles like his chimpanzee peers; and Oliver may have preferred human females over chimpanzee females.[3] During a December 16, 2006 Discovery Channel special, Janet Berger herself claimed that Oliver was becoming attracted to her when he reached the age of 16.[4] He eventually tried to mate with her, and it became apparent that Oliver could no longer stay with Janet. She decided to sell Oliver to New York attorney Michael Miller.

Enchanted Village (1977–1989)[edit]

In 1977 Oliver's owner, Michael Miller, gave him to Ralph Helfer, partner in a small theme park called Enchanted Village in Buena Park, California, USA, built on the site of the defunct Japanese Village and Deer Park amusement attraction. When Enchanted Village closed later that year, Helfer continued exhibiting Oliver in a new venture, Gentle Jungle, which changed locations a few times before finally closing in 1982. The Los Angeles Times did an extensive article about Oliver as a possible missing link or new sub-species of chimp. Oliver was transferred to the Wild Animal Training Center at Riverside, California, owned by Ken Decroo, but he was allegedly sold by Decroo in 1985. The last trainer to own Oliver was Bill Rivers. Rivers reported problems with Oliver not getting along with other chimps.

Buckshire Corporation (1989–1998)[edit]

Oliver was purchased in 1989 by the Buckshire Corporation, a Pennsylvania laboratory leasing out animals for scientific and cosmetic testing. His entrance examination revealed some previous rough handling. He was never used in experiments, but for the next nine years, his home was a small cage, whose restricted size resulted in muscular atrophy to the point that Oliver's limbs trembled.[3] In 1996, Sharon Hursh, president of the Buckshire Corporation, after being petitioned by Primarily Primates, allowed his retirement to Buckshire's colony of 13 chimpanzees.

Primarily Primates (1998–2012)[edit]

In 1998, Oliver was transferred to Primarily Primates, an organization founded by Wallace Swett in 1978. Older, partially sighted[5] and arthritic, Oliver ended up at a spacious, open-air cage at Primarily Primates in Bexar County, Texas.[6]

In 2006, Oliver was placed in the temporary care of wildlife rehabilitator Lee Theisen-Watt, who had been court-appointed to oversee Primarily Primates while the state of Texas determined who would ultimately be in charge of the facility. Though Oliver's health may have been compromised by being kept for long periods of time under unsatisfactory conditions before his arrival at Primarily Primates, he had barely exceeded half the usual lifespan of captive Common Chimpanzees which survive to adulthood.

On April 27, 2007, the state of Texas entered into a settlement agreement which removed Lee Theisen-Watt as overseer of Primarily Primates and replaced her with a board of directors that was headed by Eric Turton and Priscilla Feral. The settlement also dismissed all charges against Primarily Primates. Swett was required to leave the property and is prohibited from serving either on the board or as an employee.[7]

Oliver remained in the care of Primarily Primates while the facility went through major renovations. Members of the re-formed board of directors expressed concern for Oliver in court proceedings and in news articles about the ongoing dispute over management of the sanctuary. The Star-Telegram reports that Friends of Animals is now merging with Primarily Primates in order to restructure its management and address past concerns about the future of the sanctuary.[8] Oliver lived out the remainder of his life in the care of the restructured Primarily Primates Sanctuary.


Oliver spent his last years with another chimpanzee, the gentle female known as Raisin. She was placed with Oliver for companionship since Oliver's advanced age and years as a test subject left him blind, arthritic and unable to interact daily with younger, more playful Chimps at the Sanctuary. He took part in regular enrichment activities including a watermelon smashing party[9] documented on the Friends of Animals online Newsletter and even the chance to paint.[10] Although elderly, Oliver had access to the outdoors and lived the rest of his life in quiet retirement. News of Oliver as well as photos were often posted online by his caregivers, owing to public interest. Oliver died peacefully in his sleep and was found on June 2, 2012 with Raisin next to him.[10] Stephen René Tello, executive director of Primarily Primates, stated that Oliver would be cremated and his ashes spread on the grounds of the Sanctuary.[11]

Genetic testing[edit]

A geneticist from the University of Chicago examined Oliver's chromosomes in 1996 and revealed that Oliver had forty-eight chromosomes rather than forty-seven, disproving an earlier claim that he did not have a normal chromosome count for a chimpanzee.[12] Oliver's cranial morphology, ear shape, freckles and baldness fall within the range of variability exhibited by the Common Chimpanzee.[13] Scientists performed further studies with Oliver, the results of which were published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.[2]

However a full DNA test has never been performed. Although many requests were made for access to Oliver for medical testing during his later years at Primarily Primates and again after his death in 2012, it was the policy of PP to refuse all such requests, calling those inquiries "scientific tourism".[14]


  1. ^ a b Oliver the chimp dies at Texas refuge
  2. ^ a b c Ely JJ, Leland M, Martino M, Swett W, Moore CM (1998). "Technical note: chromosomal and mtDNA analysis of Oliver". Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 105 (3): 395–403. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1096-8644(199803)105:3<395::AID-AJPA8>3.0.CO;2-Q. PMID 9545080. 
  3. ^ a b c d Shuker, Karl (1999). "Oliver's No Gene Genie". Fortean Times. 120: 48–49. Archived from the original on January 27, 2006. 
  4. ^ "The Human Chimp". YouTube. 
  5. ^ "Primarily Primates - Oliver". Primarily Primates. Retrieved 2009-07-15. 
  6. ^ "The Texas Monkey Project". Texas Monkey Project. Retrieved 2007-12-17. 
  7. ^ Settlement looming for Primarily Primates by Cindy Tumiel San Antonio Express-News April 25, 2007, 10:30 PM CDT
  8. ^ Lawsuit filed in Oregon latest battle over Texas animal sanctuary By WILLIAM McCALL, Associated Press Writer Tue, Jun. 26, 2007. Accessed June 28, 2006.[dead link]
  9. ^ Chimpanzees, Awash in Watermelons! Primarily primates Newsletter Online. April 2, 2008. Accessed August 20, 2012.
  10. ^ a b Casady, Michelle (June 4, 2012). "Oliver, chimpanzee with humanlike traits, dies". Houston Chronicle. Hearst Newspapers. Retrieved March 4, 2015. This May 2012 photo provided by Primarily Primates shows a chimpanzee named Oliver painting 
  11. ^ Oliver, famed chimpanzee, dies reprinted from the San Antonio Express-News June 2, 2012 and accessed via the Friends of Animals Website June 6.
  12. ^ Anonymous (1996). "Mutant Chimp Gets Gene Check". Science. 274 (5288): 727. doi:10.1126/science.274.5288.727e. 
  13. ^ Hill, WCO; in Bourne, GH (1969). Anatomy, behavior, and diseases of chimpanzees (The Chimpanzee. 1. S. Karger. pp. 22–49. 
  14. ^ The Life and Times of Oliver, a Chimpanzee accessed online June 15, 2015

External links[edit]