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Chantek, an Orangutan Who Knew Sign Language, Has Died at 39

The ape was raised by an anthropologist who taught him to clean his room, use the toilet and bargain for cheeseburgers

(Zoo Atlanta)
smithsonian.com

Chantek, a male orangutan who lived at Zoo Atlanta, was one of the first apes to successfully learn American Sign Language. He knew other tricks, too. Raised by an anthropologist, Chantek was taught to clean his room, to use a toilet, and to negotiate for his favorite treats—chief among which were cheeseburgers. As the BBC reports, this remarkable primate died at Zoo Atlanta on Monday. He was 39 years old.

The cause of Chantek’s death is not known, but zoo vets had been treating him for progressive heart disease. According to a Zoo Atlanta press release, Chantek had been placed on a low-sodium diet and was regularly monitored with cardiac ultrasounds, blood pressure readings and blood work. But Chantek was getting on in years; the press release states that orangutans are considered geriatric after the age of 35.

A Bornean/Sumatran hybrid orangutan, Chantek was born on December 17, 1977 at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Georgia. He lived on the University of Tennessee campus at Chatanooga for nine years, in the company of anthropologist Lyn Miles, who studies the origins of culture and communication, and specializes in the language capacities of great apes.

In a 2014 TEDx Talk, Miles referred to herself as a “cross-species, cross-foster mom.” When Chantek was still a baby, she raised him as if he were her child. According to a 1997 CNN article, Miles woke up with Chantek at 4 A.M. for feedings, toilet trained him, and taught him how to communicate using sign language. He learned at least 150 words, and understood spoken English.

While he was living with Miles, Chantek was given an “allowance”—little hardware washers that were doled out for good behavior. The ape used his allowance to negotiate for his favorite treats, like car rides and fast food. A PBS documentary titled The Ape Who Went to College shows Chantek directing the route from the university to Dairy Queen, according to David Beasley at Reuters.

In 1997, he was transferred to Zoo Atlanta, which boasts spacious primate habitats and the country’s largest population of zoological orangutans.

The Zoo Atlanta press release states that Chantek voluntarily used sign language to communicate with his caregivers, with whom he developed “close personal bonds.” Chantek could be shy around humans he didn’t know, but he enjoyed playing with the other orangutans at the zoo—particularly a 10-year-old male named Dumadi, who was often seen at Chantek’s side.

“Chantek will be deeply missed by his family here at Zoo Atlanta,” said Hayley Murphy, Vice President of Animal Divisions, according to the press release. “He had such a unique and engaging personality and special ways of relating to and communicating with those who knew him best. It has been our privilege to have had him with us for 20 years.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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