Oliver's Travels

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

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 them.

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 un-confirmed, 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 gentle 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."

Presented by

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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