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."

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 being disappointed.

"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 hand.

"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 practicing law."

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.

How was Oliver dealing with all this? In the broadcast, or at least in the segments re-aired 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 Helfer 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 Helfer 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, Helfer 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 Helfer 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 never easy.

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.

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 the matter.

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 rattled 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 day.

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.