Oliver the Mutant Chimp

10. Oliver the Mutant Chimp

A chimpanzee named Oliver has stumped and astonished scientists for nearly twenty years. He is physiologically unusual, with a lack of hair on his chest and head, and a jawline and ears that are shaped differently from normal chimps. But more notably, Oliver very much acts human. Way too human.

Oliver was born in the Congo and sold to South African animal trainers Frank and Janet Burger in the early 1970s. From his youth he seemed not to belong with the other chimps, preferring instead to socialize with humans. He always walked upright and learned to use the toilet. His owners found that he enjoyed chores such as pushing a wheelbarrow and preparing dog food for the family dogs. Oliver was also fond of relaxing by watching television and drinking Seven-Up and whiskey. When his mind turned to sexual thoughts, Oliver was not interested in female chimps -- he went after Mrs. Burger and any other human women he saw.

Oliver's libido eventually forced the Burgers to sell him to an American trainer, and Oliver began a career of traveling as a trained chimp, demonstrating all manner of highly intelligent behavior. He came to be promoted as "The Missing Link," and there was much speculation about his genetic makeup. It was widely rumored that Oliver was a mutant chimp or even a human-chimp hybrid, perhaps the result of some secret genetic experiment. Some news reports indicated that Oliver had 47 chromosomes, one less than a chimpanzee, one more than a human.

In 1997, a series of genetic tests finally settled the question of what exactly Oliver is made of. Geneticists at the University of Chicago determined that Oliver is simply a chimp, not a missing link, and certainly no human-chimp hybrid. He also possesses the standard chimpanzee chromosome count of 48.

"So the report of 47 chromosomes was either a misinterpretation or purposeful misrepresentation," said Dr. David Ledbetter, who performed the analysis and found to his surprise that the results matched tests done two decades earlier. "The chimp-human question was settled twenty years ago," he said.

Scientists plan further tests to search for a genetic explanation of Oliver's unusual appearance and behavior. Other upright-walking chimps have appeared elsewhere, suggesting that Oliver might be part of a new species. In the meantime, the middle-aged chimp has retired to a Texas sanctuary called Primarily Primates, where he has happily settled down with a female chimp, having finally accepted that human ladies must be out of his league.


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