Oliver was acquired as a young animal (around 2 years old) in 1960 by trainers Frank and Janet Berger. Supposedly, the chimpanzee had been caught in the Congo. Some physical and behavioral evidence led the Bergers to believe Oliver was a creature other than a chimpanzee, perhaps a human-chimp hybrid: Oliver possessed a flatter face than his fellow chimpanzees; Oliver was habitually bipedal (before being struck with arthritis), never walking on his knuckles like his chimpanzee peers; and Oliver may have preferred human females over chimpanzee females. During a December 16, 2006 Discovery Channel special, Janet Berger herself claimed that Oliver was becoming attracted to her when he reached the age of 16. He eventually tried to mate with her, and it became apparent that Oliver could no longer stay with Janet. She decided to sell Oliver to New York attorney Michael Miller.
In 1977 Oliver’s owner, Michael Miller, gave him to Ralph Helfer, partner in a small theme park called Enchanted Village in Buena Park, California, USA, built on the site of the defunct Japanese Village and Deer Park amusement attraction. When Enchanted Village closed later that year, Helfer continued exhibiting Oliver in a new venture, Gentle Jungle, which changed locations a few times before finally closing in 1982. The Los Angeles Times did an extensive article about Oliver as a possible missing link or new sub-species of chimp. Oliver was transferred to the Wild Animal Training Center at Riverside, California, owned by Ken Decroo, but he was allegedly sold by Decroo in 1985. The last trainer to own Oliver was Bill Rivers. Rivers reported problems with Oliver not getting along with other chimps. Oliver was purchased in 1989 by the Buckshire Corporation, a Pennsylvania laboratory leasing out animals for scientific and cosmetic testing. His entrance examination revealed some previous rough handling. He was never used in experiments, but for the next nine years, his home was a small cage, whose restricted size resulted in muscular atrophy to the point that Oliver’s limbs trembled. In 1996, Sharon Hursh, president of the Buckshire Corporation, after being petitioned by Primarily Primates, allowed his retirement to Buckshire’s colony of 13 chimpanzees.
In 1998, Oliver was transferred to Primarily Primates, an organization founded by Wallace Swett in 1978. Older, partially sighted and arthritic, Oliver ended up at a spacious, open-air cage at Primarily Primates in Bexar County, Texas. The sanctuary’s director at the time also decided to resolve the question of Oliver’s taxonomy. In 2006, Oliver was placed in the temporary care of wildlife rehabilitator Lee Theisen-Watt, who had been appointed to oversee Primarily Primates while the state of Texas determined who would ultimately be in charge of the facility. Though Oliver’s health may have been compromised by being kept for long periods of time under unsatisfactory conditions before his arrival at Primarily Primates, he had barely exceeded half the usual lifespan of captive Common Chimpanzees which survive to adulthood.
On April 27, 2007, the state of Texas entered into a settlement agreement which removed Lee Theisen-Watt as overseer of Primarily Primates and replaced her with a board of directors that was headed by Eric Turton and Priscilla Feral. The settlement also dismissed all charges against Primarily Primates. Swett was required to leave the property and is prohibited from serving either on the board or as an employee. Oliver remained in the care of Primarily Primates while the facility went through major renovations. Members of the re-formed board of directors expressed concern for Oliver in court proceedings and in news articles about the ongoing dispute over management of the sanctuary. The Star-Telegram reports that Friends of Animals is now merging with Primarily Primates in order to restructure its management and address past concerns about the future of the sanctuary. Oliver lived out the remainder of his life in the care of the restructured Primarily Primates Sanctuary.
Oliver spent his last years with another chimpanzee, the gentle female known as Raisin. She was placed with Oliver for companionship since Oliver’s advanced age and years as a test subject left him blind, arthritic and unable to interact daily with younger, more playful Chimps at the Sanctuary. He took part in regular enrichment activities including a watermelon smashing party documented on the Friends of Animals online Newsletter and even the chance to paint. Although elderly, Oliver had access to the outdoors and lived the rest of his life in quiet retirement. News of Oliver as well as photos were often posted online by his caregivers, owing to public interest. Oliver died peacefully in his sleep and was found on June 2, 2012 with Raisin next to him. Stephen René Tello, executive director of Primarily Primates, stated that Oliver would be cremated and his ashes spread on the grounds of the Sanctuary.
- January, 01, 1958
- Democratic Republic of the Congo
- June, 02, 2012
- Primarily Primates, Bexar County, Texas