The Life and Times of Oliver, a Chimpanzee
Young Oliver sometimes moved fully upright, instead of hunching forward on shoulders and arms as most chimpanzees do. Yet like many others in the 1960s, Oliver was stolen as a youngster from a family of chimpanzees, and would never again go home.
It was that one quirk that set the peculiar fate that would befall Oliver. It was that walk that caught the eyes of entertainers who saw the opportunity to market the hapless soul as The Missing Link between humans and the rest of the animal world. So Oliver became an international spectacle: the Humanzee. A string of promoters, including New York lawyer Michael Miller, promoted Oliver as a possible chimpanzee-human hybrid. Seen on The Ed Sullivan Show and Japan's Nippon television, Oliver was touted as a sherry-sipping, stogie-puffing, coffee-loving, jet-setting star who was sexually attracted to humans. Few ever mentioned that Oliver once lived free in the Congo. Or that the promoters tethered and led Oliver by a chain.
After the entertainment world lost interest, Oliver was sold, one last time, to the research-broker Buckshire Corporation of Pennsylvania. Not much is said about this period in Oliver’s life. But researchers seemed hesitant to handle Oliver, says sanctuary director Stephen Rene Tello. “He had very humanlike traits.”
In 1998, after suffering several strokes, muscles atrophied from many long years in a lab cage, and failing eyesight, Oliver was released to Primarily Primates. Toothless and arthritic, Oliver still managed to leave the lab cage in legendary fashion, says Tello — by walking upright. “I still remember the day,” Tello says, and the lab cage “so small any human would have gone insane living in it.”
“I remember how thrilling it was to release him from that awful fate.”
Oliver – who reportedly inspired the erect-standing Planet of the Apes character Caesar – would become the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary in 2006. “His head is smaller and less hairy than that of a typical chimp,” wrote Jordan Smith in the Austin Chronicle, “his nose smaller and more defined, his ears more pointed.”
Laid to Rest
With the careful help of veterinarian Valerie Kirk and Primarily Primates’ director Stephen Tello, Oliver met Raisin. Filmmaker Andy Cockrum hand-made two hammocks for the pair, and installed one of them near the ground, to allow Oliver to find it. Sarah, long owned by a language-research lab, also got to share a space with Oliver; and, sensing the older ape’s sight was impaired, brought grapes over to Oliver, who accepted them. Oliver was a gentle soul who brought out the kindness in other chimpanzees.
“He loved coconut sorbet — that got the biggest hoots and hollers,” remembers Shelly Ladd, who heads primate enrichment projects at the refuge.
“But if he didn't like something, he'd hand the bowl back to you — like the time he tried sugar-free pistachio pudding.”
It was early June 2012 when Oliver was found resting motionless in Andy’s handmade hammock. Raisin shared Oliver’s final moments.
With Oliver’s death came a resurgence of interest in this chimpanzee’s biological personality. But P rimarily Primates has always denied media outlets' and primate experts' requests to film or take samples from Oliver, and that wasn’t about to change now. The ape’s remains were similarly kept off-limits to scientific tourists.
The Scientific Circus
Exhibits of “other” humans have been frequent in the history of Western societies. Up to the mid-twentieth century, at circuses, zoos and world fairs, “natives” and “wild” people performed and displayed their otherness for European and European-American spectators. And scientific showpeople would often dissect and embalm remains of the bodies, particularly the skulls and sexual organs.
Saartje (Sara) Baartman (1789-1815), whose body attracted crowds in both England and France for five years, had been a slave in the Eastern Cape of present-day South Africa. Baartman’s owner died in or about 1810, whereupon the 21-year old African was taken to Europe by the late owner’s brother. Baartman appeared (clothed in a skin-tight, flesh-tinted bodysuit so as to appear naked) as the Hottentot Venus, despite abolitionists ’ efforts to stop the public show of a person being led around stages, standing or walking as ordered, and prodded by spectators.
The spectacles continued even after Baartman's early death. Baron Georges Cuvier, the most eminent zoologist of the day, compared Africans to non-human primates to explain their supposed racial inferiority. Cuvier’s dissection report of Baartman’s body (1817) contained references to natural history and monkeys. Baartman's body continued to be exhibited in a plaster cast at La Musée de l'Homme in Paris — the institution to which Curvier belonged — until 1982.
Echoes of the prurient and arrogant curiosity that ravaged Baartman’s life would haunt Oliver’s. In November 2008, a third-year medical student wrote to Primarily Primates:
I have had an interest in Oliver for quite some time. I was trying to figure out if Oliver was determined to be a Bonobo (Pan paniscus) chimpanzee or a common chimpanzee with some unusual genetic abnormalities. Many Bonobo chimps walk upright for long distances like Oliver and have different physical characteristics to most common chimpanzees. It has also been determined that Bonobo chimpanzees have a higher level of intelligence and are able to understand and interact with humans in more conventional written symbol language than has been accomplished with common chimpanzees. It has also been interesting to me that the Bonobo chimpanzees have very similar body proportions to Australopithecus.
The student asked for molecular study results of Oliver's genome.
In the first week of June 2012, just two days after Oliver’s death, Primarily Primates received a message from the former medical student, who was now the founder of a Texas-based cell technology firm. “I am still interested in doing some genetic research on Oliver and was wondering if I can purchase his remains.”
Explaining that Oliver was never subjected to commercial exploitation or scientific probing after arriving at the sanctuary, and that death wouldn’t change that, Primarily Primates president Priscilla Feral answered: “Not a chance.”
It was only a few hours after Oliver’s passing when Primarily Primates received an e-mail from Western Australia. “I read that my much-admired Oliver has died,” wrote the author. “I am a human biologist and have been following Oliver since 1982 when I first read about him.”
The biologist then asked who had authority “to check out how Oliver's epigenetic regions and switches differ from other chimps when it comes to the locomotion genes in him and the normal knucklewalking others.” The message continued:
I am still sure the best clue to our own bipedality will come from this examination. I have written many times over the years to Professor Colin Groves at the Australian National University in Canberra, and others, asking them to follow Oliver's progress also.
The message did end with a kind sentiment: “And I so applaud the great efforts you continue to make. I am with you in spirit as you grieve for Oliver.”
Primarily Primates sent a thank-you note and moved on.
On the 7 th day of June 2012, Stephen Rene Tello wrote:
Today we cremated and scattered Oliver's ashes. It was a quiet, private ceremony. All the care staff and close friends of Oliver were present to help me spread his ashes around the sanctuary. Oliver is home now, forever free. For the last part of his life, he got to live in a safe haven: a non-exploitive, non-commercial world where he was surrounded by people who love him and in companionship with others of his kind.
- “Famous Long Ago” (15 Dec. 2006)
- Z. S. Strother, “Display of the Body Hottentot” in Bernth Lindfors, ed., Africans on Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business, Indiana University Press (1998).