Chimpanzee

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The Story of Oliver




This video features the chimpanzee known as Oliver, an individual ripped from Africa in the 1960s to become “one of the most exploited and studied chimpanzees in history.” Oliver’s life stands as one of the saddest contemporary examples of humanity’s custom of controlling the rest of the planet's inhabitants.

Oliver, who walked upright, was presented to an international audience as the “Humanzee” -- a "missing link" between humans and rest of the animal world. After the entertainers tired of this, Oliver was relegated to laboratory life and languished for seven years in a cage. In 1998, Oliver was released -- with atrophied muscles, failing eyesight and patchy skin -- to Primarily Primates, a refuge in San Antonio. Oliver still managed to walk upright from the cage, but after experiencing several strokes was kept alone for years due to safety fears.

In 2006, Primarily Primates came under attack by rival animal-advocacy groups and was placed under a receivership which lasted six months. Oliver was once again in the public eye, discussed on television and also in an article in the Austin Chronicle (Jordan Smith, “Famous Long Ago” - 15 Dec. 2006). Speaking of Oliver for the Chronicle, the temporary receiver for the sanctuary called Oliver a "national treasure" and added, referring to the limits of a sanctuary enclosure, "He used to fly in a 747, smoke cigars, and drink sherry...This is not what he is used to."

Representing Oliver in such a way misses the key reality: that Oliver once lived free in the Congo.

Presumably, the animals poised closest to freedom from human ownership are the other apes, given the attention their candidacy for legal personhood has attracted. Yet the more “like us” other animals are, often the more useful the group’s members are thought to be -- and the greater the likelihood that they’ve been and still are obliged to perform for human observers, whether on stages, in television commercials, in space studies or in language labs.

In the video here, scenes from Oliver’s days as a stage attraction show this chimpanzee tethered and led by a chain.

Recently, very slowly, with the constant supervision of a veterinarian and Primarily Primates’ new director Stephen Tello, Oliver has been introduced to Raisin, another chimpanzee whose grim history briefly emerges in this film. The filmmaker also made two hammocks just for Oliver and Raisin; one is positioned low to the ground, to allow Oliver to know it is there. Oliver and Raisin have four climbing structures suitable for elderly and blind chimpanzees.

Future plans for Oliver and Raisin include another new living area suited to their needs. There, they’ll be joined by Sarah, who once lived in a language lab in Ohio, and two young chimpanzees named Emma and Jackson. Sarah and the young pair were displaced during the temporary receivership, and it’s anticipated that three more well-planned and gentle introductions will result in a mutually supportive community for all five, with gentle Oliver as group elder.

Text: © 2007 by Friends of Animals. Lee Hall provided research for this overview.

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