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Genetic testing show he's a chimp, not a human hybrid

By JOHN MacCORMACK / San Antonio Express-News

SAN ANTONIO - Ending decades of speculation that he represents some kind of missing link, genetic testing has shown that Oliver the chimp is just that - a chimp.

Oliver, now a resident of the Primarily Primates sanctuary in Boerne, walks upright like a human. He was put on display throughout the world in the 1970s, touted as a mysterious man-ape perhaps the missing link.

But it turns out the freak-show attraction is no freak, at least genetically.

"He's not a human-chimp hybrid. His chromosome number is 48, which is a normal chimp karyotype," said Dr. David Ledbetter, a geneticist at the University of Chicago who analyzed Oliver's chromosomes.

Human beings have 46 chromosomes. For years, rumors circulated that Oliver had 47 and represented a biological amalgam between man and ape.

But, Ledbetter said, a re-examination of the chromosome studies done two decades ago in Japan has only confirmed his conclusions.

"That data was fairly clear. So the report of 47 chromosomes was either a misinterpretation or a purposeful misrepresentation. The chimp-human question was settled 20 years ago," he said.

One need only look at Oliver's popularity years ago as an attraction in the United States and abroad to find ample financial motive not to dispel that enticing rumor.

Newspaper reports said 26 million people paid to view him during a tour of Japan in the 1970s. For years after that he was a top draw at several animal theme parks in Southern California.

More recently, television tabloid show reporters have flocked to Boerne to report breathlessly on the mysterious man-ape.

And now that the human-chimp hybrid issue has been put to rest, additional genetic testing will be done in Chicago and San Antonio to determine Oliver's exact pedigree.

Oliver was acquired as a baby in the early 1970s by trainers Frank and Janet Burger. Their other chimps avoided Oliver, but his intelligence and personality stood out.

"This guy, Oliver, he enjoyed sitting down at night and having a drink, and watching television," Mrs. Burger recalled.

The Burgers sold Oliver to New York attorney Michael Miller, who took him on the road, hinting that he might be an ape-human hybrid. In press accounts of the time, Miller said he intended for Oliver to undergo a full battery of scientific tests. The results, if any, were never made public.

Oliver later was owned by a series of West Coast animal trainers who exhibited him as a freak, and put him in television shows and commercials.

"It was very hard to predict what was happening in that brain and generally he acted more human than chimp in a lot of settings," said Ken DeCroo, an anthropologist and animal trainer who owned Oliver.

"One time he was out of coffee. I never trained him to do this, but maybe he knew it from the past. He got up from the table, walked into the kitchen, picked up the coffee pot, poured coffee into my cup, then into his, and then took the pot back into the kitchen," DeCroo said. "But here's the chimp part. He's making a terrible mess. His brain is telling him what to do, but his body isn't quite doing it. But he had the awareness. He understood where all the elements fit and that I was out of coffee. It was shocking."

All that is certain about Oliver, who arrived at the Primarily Primates sanctuary in Boerne last summer after seven years in a research laboratory, is that he is not a normal chimp in either appearance or temperament.

"He not only looks and walks differently, he doesn't act like other chimps. I've never experienced the difficulty I've had with Oliver in getting one chimp socialized with other chimps," said Wally Swett, director of the sanctuary.

Swett said Oliver could prove to be a hybrid between common and pygmy chimps, a mutant chimp or an entirely new race of chimp.

"My favorite theory is that he is not a common chimpanzee, but this will be one of the hardest things to prove because you need blood samples of other animals to prove there is a new race of apes out there," he said.

"A British television station located another upright-walking ape in Indonesia, and I also saw a photograph of a chimp, now dead, in a zoo in Cameroon, Africa, and I almost fell out of my chair. It looked very much like a young Oliver," said Swett.

In addition to further genetic studies, Swett said, Oliver's odd body structure will be analyzed by the San Antonio scientists.

"They want to take measurements. They have located some people here in Texas who are experts in doing comparisons of lengths of limbs and bones of chimps and humans," he said.

In San Antonio, Dr. Charlene Moore, a cytogeneticist at the University of Texas Health Science Center, and Dr. John Ely of Trinity University, a specialist in DNA analysis, also will soon tackle the question of Oliver's genetic identity.

"We'll take it a little further than whether he's a human-chimp hybrid. We want to see if he's related to common chimp, pygmy chimps or is a chimp hybrid," said Moore.

If Oliver's chromosomes prove unusual, DNA studies will be done to clear up the mystery.

"My interest is similar to Charlene's," said Ely.

"There have been a lot of stories about Oliver in the past, some bizarre and some not so far-fetched, that may or may not be true. The work needs to be done and published some place, that people with credentials have determined this about him," he said.

Ely and Moore hope to complete their work on Oliver by June in time to present the findings to a convention of primatologists in San Diego.

 

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