Young Oliver sometimes moved fully upright on two legs, instead of hunching forward on shoulders and arms as most chimpanzees do. His unusual gait is what would ultimately change Oliver’s life forever.
In the 1960s, Oliver was stolen as a youngster from a family of chimpanzees, and would never again go home after catching the eye of entertainers who saw the opportunity to market him as “The Missing Link” between humans and the rest of the animal world.
Oliver quickly became an international spectacle and was dubbed the Humanzee.
A string of promoters taunted Oliver as a possible chimpanzee-human hybrid. Seen on The Ed Sullivan Show and Japan's Nippon television, Oliver was shown 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. 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---by walking upright.
With the careful help of veterinarian Valerie Kirk and Primarily Primates’ director, Oliver was able to meet Raisin, a female chimpanzee who would quickly become his friend.. 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, another chimpanzee who was 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 one caregiver. “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 Primarily 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.
Oliver’s Playground Opens
Although Oliver was gone, he was certainly not forgotten. Plans to create an enrichment habitat were in the works and it was decided that the new structure would be situated where Oliver lived during his time at Primarily Primates.
Two years after his passing, Primarily Primates and Friends of Animals were able to unveil the new habitat which was dubbed Oliver’s Playground.
Shrieks of delight and clapping rang through the air at Primarily Primates PPI March 22, but this time it wasn’t the chimpanzees or the spider monkeys or gibbons expressing themselves. It was staff from PPI and Friends of Animals as well as invited guests who gathered outside Oliver’s Playground (PrimaDome), to cheer on Wanda and Beau as they experienced the new habitat for the first time.
“This is so emotional,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, as she waited for Wanda and Beau to walk from their enclosure through an overhead tunnel to the PrimaDome.
“This is exciting. It’s incredible to see,” added Don Barnes, who has a long history with PPI. His perseverance resulted in the chimps from the movie Project X finding a new home at the sanctuary.
“The PrimaDome is really a unique design. It’s great. It’s prefabricated and then put together. It’s powerful.”
Enrichment elements in Oliver’s Playground at PPI include a grassy floor, a variety of climbing structures and hammocks, and a cupola where chimpanzees can climb 25 feet to view the tree tops. Overhead tunnels connect habitats so that three to five groups of chimpanzees have access to this new, exciting area in which to play, climb, socialize and explore.
The flexibility of this new area allows care staff to modify and vary its play elements, while hiding toys and treats for the apes to discover throughout the day.
Oliver’s Playground was made possible by support from the San Antonio Area Foundation and generous donations. Producer and director of Danger Dog Films, Andy Cockrum, joined by his father, made the first pledge to start off the fund-raising effort at PPI .
The Cockrums were on hand March 22 to pull the lever to open the tunnel so Wanda and Beau could make their way to Oliver’s Playground. Andy Cockrum also helped with concepts and design and is working on a documentary depicting Oliver’s life.