[monkeywire] Tracking down Oliver, onetime "missing link"
joshg1973 at yahoo.com
Thu Oct 9 18:23:16 EDT 2003
In the days when he would make himself a nightcap and sit down to watch TV with his
keepers, a chimpanzee named Oliver was hailed as the missing link. The author tracks down
a retired world celebrity
by James Shreeve. The Atlantic Monthly. Boston: Oct 2003. Vol. 292, Iss. 3; pg. 94
Copyright Atlantic Monthly Company Oct 2003
On April 1, 1996, a truck carrying twelve chimpanzees backed up to the delivery gate at
Primarily Primates, an animal sanctuary north of San Antonio. The chimps on the truck had
come from a Pennsylvania research company called the Buckshire Corporation, and their
delivery to Primarily Primates represented one of the first attempts anywhere to retire
chimps to a sanctuary after they've been used in medical experiments. Wally Swett, the
director of Primarily Primates, had been negotiating for eight months to take custody of
Swett came out to oversee the unloading of the animals. He was eager to get a glimpse of
one in particular. The paperwork from Buckshire indicated that the shipment included an
elderly primate named Oliver. Twenty years before, a chimp by that name had enjoyed a
brief, feverish celebrity as a purported "missing link" between apes and men. This
extraordinary claim was based on several behavioral and morphological peculiarities,
especially Oliver's determined preference for walking upright on two legs. Preliminary
genetic tests were said to indicate that he had forty-seven chromosomes, whereas human
beings have forty-six, and common chimpanzees forty-eight. The tests were unconfirmed,
however, and the media soon lost interest. After drifting for a decade from one
California theme park to another, Oliver faded from view. Most of those who remembered
him at all presumed he was dead. Wally Swett believed he might be alive, and crouching in
one of the cages in the back of the truck.
Oliver became a celebrity in January of 1976, when he was approximately sixteen years
old. There is no question that he was odd. His head was bald and abnormally small in
proportion to his body, with a cranium more rounded than a typical chimp's. His lower
face lacked the usual pronounced forward jut. His ears were high and pointed, his skin
pale and freckled, and his aspect unusually gende and intelligent. His body odor was said
to be strangely sharp, wholly atypical of chimpanzees. And he walked on two legs all the
time. When he lived under the care of Frank and Janet Burger, the animal trainers who
raised him, Oliver occasionally fed the dogs and did other chores, relaxing afterward
with a cup of coffee. In the evening he might sit and watch TV with the couple, sometimes
preparing a nightcap for Frank and himself of whiskey and 7UP. He did not get along with
other chimps, and separation from his human companions was said to bring him to tears.
When he reached sexual maturity, he was interested only in human females.
During Wally Swett's negotiations with Buckshire Corporation, Sharon Hursh, the company's
president, had insisted that there was no reason to link the aged ape in her possession
with the freakish creature whose likeness had once appeared in the pages of Time. But
even in the darkness of the truck Swett, who as a young man had followed Oliver's story
closely, thought he could recognize the ape's Mr. Spock ears and other distinctive
features. He was not completely sure, however, until the animals had been unloaded and
released from their transport cages.
The moment was recorded on film. The first few chimps to emerge, their limbs weakened
from inactivity, knuckle-walk gingerly around their new enclosure looking frightened and
confused. Then Oliver appears and immediately begins striding around on two legs, his
body hair bristling with excitement. For a moment he, too, seems disoriented, his steps
directionless. But at the sound of Swett's voice-"Hi, Ollie! Wow, Ollie, you stand
up!"-the ape turns and rushes toward the human observers, eager and a little
stiff-legged, like a passenger after a long flight catching sight of waiting friends.
According to news reports when Oliver first came into public view, he had been obtained
by agents of Frank Burger as an infant in "the Congo River region." Considering that the
Congo River drains an area of about 1.5 million square miles, much of it dense rain
forest, the reports might as well have said he came from darkest Africa. Oliver spent his
formative years with the Burgers in Blackwood, New Jersey, a stone's throw from the
traffic whizzing by on Route 42. The Burgers were circus performers whose dog, pony, and
chimp act had been featured on The Ed Sullivan Show in the early 1960s. They intended to
train Oliver to join the act. He ended up with a far more unusual career.
Frank Burger died a few years ago, but Janet, at seventy-five, was still actively
training animals on the same property in Blackwood when I visited her there late last
year. (Since then she has given away her last chimpanzees, to Primarily Primates, and she
is preparing to move to Florida.) Burger is a small, energetic woman with a
platinum-blonde ponytail, indifferently painted-on eyebrows, and hands rough from work.
"I've had forty chimps in my day," she told me. "But Oliver, he was altogether different.
A real oddball. This guy walked all over the place. He lived out in the barn with the
others, but as soon as it was morning, he'd want to come in the house. He'd sit around
watching television, maybe have a jelly sandwich. That made him happy. He loved TV. But
he didn't like the violence. If he saw two men fighting, he'd go over and punch the
screen. He was peaceful. Kind of a loner. He liked helping Frank with the chores, like
loading sawdust into a wheelbarrow. In the evening we would put him back out in the barn.
But you couldn't put him with the other guys. They hated him."
In a photo of Oliver from that time, his face is flat, its contours almost human in
appearance, and his pate is peach-fuzzed and liver-spotted, like that of an old courtier
without his wig. He is staring back at the viewer with the half hopeful, half resigned
expression of someone who has always relied on the kindness of strangers but is used to
"Deep down in my heart I believe he's got something in him other than chimpanzee," Burger
told me. "Myself, I think he's some kind of throwback."
Burger remembers Oliver most of all for his persistent amorous advances toward her and
her female friends. "He'd get aroused, and want to kiss you and so forth," she said. "I'd
tell him, 'I love you, but I'm not going to have sex with you.'"
Because of the animosity of the other chimps, the Burgers never succeeded in integrating
Oliver into their animal act. But Frank would trot him out on a leash afterward as a sort
of encore, and say a few words about the mysterious ape who walked like a man. Following
one of these appearances a short article in an obscure magazine caught the attention of a
thirty-three-year-old Manhattan appellate lawyer named Michael Miller. Miller found
himself so obsessed with the notion of an upright-walking ape that he tracked the Burgers
down at their place in New Jersey and asked if he could meet Oliver in person. In
December of 1975 Frank invited Miller and his wife to dinner. After loosening them up for
a few hours with tales of his adventures with the chimpanzees, he took Miller out to the
barn. He sat him down in an easy chair, excused himself, and came back with Oliver on a
tether. As soon as Oliver caught sight of the visitor, he threw his shoulders back, and
with every hair on his body erect, he strode over to Miller, cocked an eye to get a
better look at him, and reached out to shake his hand, grasping his elbow with the other
Frank Burger with Oliver; Oliver's upright stride
"It was a transforming experience," Miller told me recently. "I thought I was seeing the
missing link. I was seeing Australopithecus. And I felt a terrible sense that if this
creature was so important to science, he shouldn't be with a carnival guy."
Miller decided on the spot that Oliver should be with a Manhattan appellate lawyer
instead. At first Frank refused to sell, claiming that Oliver was like a son. It was then
after midnight, so Miller and his wife said good-bye, and the Burgers led them to the
highway. But just as they reached it, Frank and Janet waved them over and offered to sell
Oliver for eight thousand dollars. They wrote out the agreement on a piece of paper on
the hood of the car.
"In my heart, I felt destiny was pointing," Miller told me. "Here I was, Michael Miller,
just a guy, with the opportunity to present to the world this extraordinary creature. I
felt I was the fisherman who finds the coelacanth in his net, or the shepherd who
discovers the Dead Sea scrolls. The earth has many secrets, and I was privileged to find
a living one. My life was moved off the rails that night. I couldn't go back to
Oliver-mania: a Tokyo billboard during his Japanese tour
Having bought Oliver, Miller had to figure out what to do with him. Obviously, the lawyer
and his wife could not have an ape living with them in their Manhattan apartment.
Miller's plan, to the extent he had one, was to present his discovery to experts at the
American Museum of Natural History, who would probably want to keep Oliver in their
custody, he thought, while they delved into the myriad questions raised by his existence.
"I thought they would say thanks very much, here's a bronze plaque, we'll take it from
here," he told me.
The museum, however, had no interest in even meeting Oliver, much less taking him in for
research purposes. Miller decided to go back to the Burgers' and arrange to board Oliver
there, which Frank was glad to do for $500 a month. Miller then began inviting experts to
travel to Blackwood and examine Oliver. Some were highly reputable scientists-among them
George Schaller, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the world's best-known
field biologists, and Clifford Jolly, a physical anthropologist at New York University.
Others were authorities on the Bigfoot legend and its African manifestations-tales of
mysterious, apelike creatures known by such names as Agogwe, Apamandi, and Sehite.
"I made everybody sign a secrecy agreement about what they saw and where it was located,"
Miller said. "Not because I wanted to manipulate things but because I knew the story was
huge." In spite of his efforts, in January of 1976 a reporter got wind of the news, and
his story was picked up by the UPI wire. Miller was obliged to hold a press conference,
and there he produced photos of Oliver, which appeared in newspapers around the world the
next day and in Time a couple of days later. With the media vying for a chance to see the
missing link, Miller scheduled a full-scale coming out at the Explorers Club, in New York
City. The press release for the event made no definite claims about Oliver's species
identity, but it did drop a number of hints: his erect posture was "a total mystery," his
chromosomes "abnormal," and his place of origin in Africa known to be inhabited by both
human beings and chimpanzees, which the press took as an implication that Oliver was
perhaps half one and half the other. Oliver was otherwise described as light-skinned,
myopic, and virtually toothless, the last condition as yet to be explained. (Janet Burger
told me that Oliver had developed a gum disease when he was younger, and had pulled out
his own teeth as they became loose.) His body odor was "extraordinarily pungent," and he
was known to make a warbling noise in his throat that "occasionally breaks into a
scream." Reporters were warned that although Oliver was normally docile, he was extremely
strong, and their safety could not be guaranteed.
On the day of the event the police cordoned off the street outside the Explorers Club.
Inside, with security officers holding back a wall of photographers, Oliver, guided by
Frank Burger's leash, appeared-stopping on command to pose with his arms outstretched,
his legs spread wide apart, and his enormous chimp testicles in full view. The
performance was repeated a month later at the Explorers Club's annual dinner, in the
ballroom of the "Waldorf-Astoria, and this time it was captured on film. The curtain
rises, and Burger, dressed in a powder-blue leisure suit, trots out with Oliver, who is
strolling along beside him in bowlegged, easygoing cowpoke style. At one point he breaks
into a goofy, toothless grimace, but otherwise he seems as coolly indifferent to the
audience's gasps and applause as a fashion model on a runway.
By this time the scientists had reported the results of their examinations of Oliver.
Miller heard what he wanted to hear and ignored the rest. Meanwhile, officials from the
Nippon Television Network, in Japan, had approached him with an offer: they would pay him
a small fee and fund additional scientific studies to be carried out in Japan, including
genetic tests, in exchange for the right to reveal the results in a nationally televised
program. This seemed to Miller like a perfect opportunity to determine Oliver's true
nature, to increase his public exposure, and to make a little money.
Oliver spent three weeks on tour in Japan, with Nippon's cameras following his every
move: at a banquet, dressed in a tux; enjoying a cigar and an outsize can of beer; in a
kimono, getting ready for bed. In the center of Tokyo a billboard bearing his image
rotated above the rush-hour traffic. The Japanese made good on their promise to conduct
an elaborate scientific examination, Nippon's ubiquitous camera crews recording every
step. At one point scientists placed Oliver on a device called a "gravicoder," which
indicated that his center of gravity resembled a human being's more than a chimpanzee's.
In most other respects, however, Oliver fell toward the chimp side of the spectrum.
Karyotypes were worked up on forty of his cells; most seemed to indicate the presence of
forty-eight chromosomes, but the results were ambiguous enough to keep the possibility of
forty-seven alive for anyone who wanted to believe that. Reportedly, some 26 million
people watched the Japanese television broadcast.
Michael Miller and Oliver
How was Oliver dealing with all this? In the broadcast, or at least in the segments
reaired this past June on the Discovery Channel, he appears to be thoroughly enjoying
himself, bestowing hugs and handshakes all around. But according to Miller, there were
less happy moments in Japan-such as the time Oliver turned white with rage when he was
pushed into a tiny house his hosts had built for him to pretend to live in, and the time
he grabbed hold of a little girl's hair and wouldn't let go. And he had to be sedated
before undergoing x-rays, blood tests, and other scientific probing. In order to
administer an injectable sedative, researchers placed him in a "squeeze cage"-a box with
one side that can be cranked inward until the animal inside is unable to move.
"Oliver screamed very loud, because he was frightened," Miller told me. "It was very
disturbing to me then. It disturbs me to think about it now." Miller himself was growing
increasingly uncomfortable on the Japan tour. Far from rescuing Oliver from the life of a
circus freak, he appeared to have delivered the animal onto a bigger stage, over which he
was losing control. Miller said that the final blow came during a televised press
conference, when it was announced that a young and attractive Japanese actress had
offered to mate with Oliver and to allow the act to be recorded in the interests of
science. "Japan was a fiasco," he said. "It was the beginning of the end for me. In fact
it was the end of the end."
When Miller got back to the United States, he started looking around for a place to
unload his missing link. He ended up giving Oliver away to an animal trainer in
California named Ralph Helfer, on the condition that Heifer take care of Oliver for life.
Miller had owned him for less than a year.
To people in the animal-entertainment business, Ralph Helfer is a legend. In the 1960s he
ran a thriving enterprise called Africa USA, which for a while met virtually all of
Hollywood's wild-animal needs-big cats, elephants, bears, chimps, and other exotic
species. All received what Heifer called "affection training," which purported to replace
the whip, gun, and chair of the old-school handlers with love, understanding, and
respect. Africa USA fell on hard times, however, and by the fall of 1976, when he
acquired Oliver from Michael Miller, Heifer was running a theme park off Interstate 5
called Enchanted Village, which also provided animals to the motion-picture industry.
"Lots of people came to see him," Helfer told me recently, over breakfast in Newport
Beach, California, not far from one of his offices. "The Bigfoot people came. They
brought tents and literally camped around his cage. We had primate-research people
come-good ones. There wasn't anybody who walked away without saying 'We don't know what
he is.' Everybody had their ideas, but nobody ever resolved it."
Helfer told me some things about Oliver I hadn't heard yet: that his fingernails were
long, "like a woman's," and that he would peel grapes before popping them into his mouth.
Chimps urinate anywhere, he said, but Oliver would only go directly into the drain in the
floor of his cage, standing up and holding his penis like a gentleman. "I don't think he
was a missing link," Helfer said, "but something happened back there in the forest This
was not a chimpanzee."
Enchanted Village went bankrupt in 1977, and Heifer opened another animal park, called
Gentle Jungle; that business, too, ran into trouble, and eventually folded. Helfer gave
Oliver to one of his trainers, Ken Decroo, who had started his own exotic-animal rental
company. By this time Oliver was doing a little work in front of the camera, though he
was not particularly good at it. I recently met Decroo, who told me that Oliver hated
being ordered to do things, and did not react well at all to being rushed. If a director,
setting up a shot, started screaming at him, Oliver would become even more unmanageable.
There was also the problem of the mutual animosity between Oliver and other chimpanzees.
Decroo said that the only person other than himself who could really handle Oliver was
Bill Rivers, another Gentle Jungle trainer. Under their management Oliver and some other
chimps were able to perform in a couple of television commercials, and in the animal
equivalent of bit movie parts-the wild scenes, without actors around who might get hurt.
Oliver's biggest role was in a Dick Clark TV show called Animals Are the Funniest People,
where he played the President in a skit with Loretta Swit. But stage-managing Oliver was
This was the mid-1980s, and Oliver was well into his twenties; it is a wonder that he was
still tractable enough to be worked with at all. A performing chimp's career is usually
over by around the age of eight, though a trainer may be able to safely squeeze out a
couple more years by pulling the animal's front teeth or, in the case of a male, by
castration. Since chimps in captivity can live forty or even fifty years, the question
arises of what to do with all those movie and circus veterans for the remaining 80
percent of their lives. Some are used to breed the next crop of performers; others end up
in private homes or roadside zoos; and many, like Oliver, are sent to biomedical-research
labs. But it was not yet clear to me how Oliver had ended up in one.
Oliver at his current home, Primarily Primates
Decroo told me that in 1987 he sold or gave away all his animals. Bill Rivers bought
Oliver. After lunch with Decroo, I drove out to meet Rivers, who is still in the
animal-rental business, running a ranch in Winchester, California, called Bill Rivers'
Movieland Animals. Rivers, who is stocky and rugged-looking and dresses like a cowboy,
recalled, "I kept hearing stories about how Oliver was half human. But once I got a look
at him myself, I thought, hell, he's just a different-looking chimp. He walked upright
all the time, that's true, and he had those high ears. But it was his gentle nature that
really impressed me. He liked people. We got along right off the bat. In the early
morning I'd take him on walks through the park, before the public arrived. He liked to
hold my hand. He couldn't see very well, so he'd stick real close to me."
As I was leaving, I mentioned to Rivers that I planned to stop in San Antonio to meet
Oliver on my way back to Silver Spring, Maryland, where I was living at the time. This
prompted a confessional moment. "I sold him to an outfit in Pennsylvania," Rivers told
me. "I told them that if they were going to inject him with cancer or AIDS, I wasn't
interested. But they said they just wanted to study his blood. It's been in the back of
my mind ever since-whether I did the right thing." He asked me to take a message to Wally
Swett, Oliver's current owner. Rivers had heard that Primarily Primates was having
trouble making ends meet, and he wanted me to say that he'd be more than willing to take
Oliver back to live out the rest of his days. "I loved that chimp," Rivers said. "He was
one of a kind."
Oliver spent seven years with the Buckshire Corporation. As it turned out, by 1996 Sharon
Hursh was just as eager to get rid of the "Buckshire 12" as Wally Swett was to receive
them. Through the 1980s Buckshire had been supplying chimps to laboratories and
pharmaceutical companies trying to develop a vaccine for hepatitis B. But by 1989, when
Oliver arrived at Buckshire, chimps were a losing proposition, and he was never actually
leased out for lab use. He just sat for seven years in his cage.
Today most of the Buckshire chimps live in two group enclosures at Primarily Primates,
where they can go indoors or outdoors as they please, interacting with one another and
climbing around on wooden scaffolding in the Texas sun. But Oliver still lives alone.
Swett attempted to integrate him into a social group, trying different combinations of
animals, but even normally good-natured chimps would harass Oliver when he was put in
their enclosure. Swett persisted, and for a while did manage to settle him into a group
with one female, two toothless castrates from a circus act, and a huge old chimp named
Onan, who took on the role of Oliver's protector and gave him hugs when he needed them.
But Onan died, and even if the others weren't openly hostile, they kept running over
Oliver when they got rowdy, because he was frail and slow and too blind to see them
coming. Swett decided that he was safer by himself. Oliver is arthritic and no longer
walks upright. Even when he first arrived, he did so only when excited-a change from his
past behavior that Swett attributes to his years at Buckshire. "Let's try putting you in
a little cage for seven years, and see how well you walk around afterward," he said when
we first spoke.
Primarily Primates is not open to the public. It took a couple of e-mails, a dozen phone
calls, and an abjectly pleading fax before Swett would allow me to come see Oliver. Swett
is something of a misanthrope. He is particularly ill disposed toward faithless
geneticists, animal trainers who once owned Oliver and claim to want him back, and
nagging journalists-at least until he gets to know them better. He is grouchy with his
staff; I had the feeling that if he didn't need help caring for the 850 animals now in
his sanctuary, he would fire the lot. He lives alone in a little ranch house with a baby
chimp named Emma, on whom he dotes. He does have a few good friends among his own
species. "Wally doesn't get out much," one of them told me. "It's not people he has a
problem with. It's society." Swett explained, "I just feel more comfortable with the
animals and trees and whatever."
Swett developed his grudge against geneticists in the course of new genetic
investigations of Oliver. David Ledbetter, of the University of Chicago, did blood tests
in 1996. They showed conclusively that Oliver has forty-eight chromosomes, just like any
other chimpanzee. Swett did not take issue with the results; he had never bought into the
half human, half chimp notion anyway. But he did believe that Oliver was something more
wonderful and strange than just an ordinary chimpanzee. Swett thought that perhaps Oliver
was a cross between a common chimp (Pan troglodytes) and a pygmy chimp (Pan paniscus), or
possibly an unknown subspecies of one or the other. A more refined genetic analysis might
answer the question; but much to Swett's disgust, Ledbetter wasn't interested in pursuing
Swett subsequently enlisted the help of two other geneticists: John Ely, of Trinity
University, in San Antonio, and Charleen Moore, of the University of Texas Health Science
Center at San Antonio. Moore's work confirmed the chromosome count of forty-eight, and
showed that when treated with a stain, Oliver's chromosomes had the pattern of light and
dark bands characteristic of common chimps. This ruled out the theory that Oliver was a
hybrid. Meanwhile, Ely's study of Oliver's mitochondrial DNA suggested that he was a
member of the subspecies Pan troglodytes troglodytes-not just a common chimp but a very
common common chimp. He resembled most of all chimps from Gabon, which might make that
central African country his most likely birthplace. Swett is listed as a co-author on a
1998 paper reporting these results in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. But
that does not mean he supports the paper's conclusions, he maintains that Ely betrayed
him by rushing into print while there were still more studies to be done that might track
Oliver's oddness to its source.
I first arrived at Primarily Primates toward day's end, and Swett allowed me to tag along
while he made his evening rounds. If Oliver hadn't yet retired for the night, he said, we
could pay him a quick visit. The sanctuary encompasses about eight acres of live oak and
juniper trees. We walked past some leopards, a sleeping bear, and many cylindrical
enclosures full of monkeys, who screeched and chattered indignantly as we passed.
Peacocks, overflow from the San Antonio zoo, roamed freely on the paths. Mingling with
them were guinea fowl and some goggle-eyed Egyptian geese who had just shown up one day,
as if they'd heard through the grapevine about this place where the living was easy. A
pair of royal palm turkeys fell into step behind us. "Somebody dropped them off for
leopard food, but I didn't have the heart," Swett said.
Around a corner we came within view of a couple of large chimpanzee enclosures; in front
of them was a smaller cage, where Oliver lives. Surrounding it were yucca plants,
mountain laurel, crepe myrtle, Japanese plum, and some antique roses in bloom. Oliver's
cage had three sides open to the air; on the fourth a passageway covered by a canvas flap
led to an indoor area. The chimp was nowhere in sight. Swett raided the bars.
"Oliver!" he called. When there was no response, he called again, drawing out the
syllables: "O-li-ver!" After a moment the canvas opened and Oliver shuffled out, making
his way slowly on all fours. Guided by the sound of Swett's voice, Oliver reached through
the bars and gave him a hug. "Handsome boy!" Swett said, placing a banana in Oliver's
hand and hugging him back. Oliver peeled off the skin with his long fingernails and ate
the fruit, grunting and sighing softly and looking heavenward with his milky eyes. He had
an old man's pot belly, shaggy limbs, and hands that seemed made of black purse leather.
The wind changed, and I got a whiff of his notorious odor. It was strong but not really
unpleasant, like wet laundry that has been left a little too long in the washer on a hot
Oliver stuck his muzzle between the bars and gave Swett a kiss. Watching the pair of
them, I thought about what Bill Rivers had said-that it wasn't his upright gait that made
Oliver stand out, or his weird, humanlike face, but how much he reached out to people. In
Swett he had found a person who had been reaching all his life in the opposite direction.
Sensing another presence, Oliver felt his way toward me along the bars of the cage and
extended a hand to my face, to see if I had something to offer him too.
James Shreeve is the author of The Neandertal Enigma: Solving the Mystery of Modern Human
Origins (1995) and The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and
Save the World, to be published in January.
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