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October 2003

Oliver's Travels
by James Shreeve

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 gentle and intelligent … 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 …

“I’ve had forty chimps in my day,” [Janet Burger] 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.” …

A thirty-three-year-old Manhattan appellate lawyer named Michael 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 …

“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 … [The Burgers] 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 practicing law.”

Vol. 292, No. 3, pp. 94–102

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