The rollercoaster life of the first orangutan to use sign language

August 7 saw the loss of Chantek –  one of the first signing apes – at the age of 39.

Chantek, a hybrid Sumatran-Bornean orangutan, was born in 1977 at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Georgia, USA. He was rejected by his mother and chosen to become the focus of an experiment at the University of Tennessee.


Dr Lyn Miles, an anthropologist at the university, was charged with the young orangutan’s care. Miles raised him like a human baby, kitting him out with nappies (diapers) and clothes. She had had previous experience communicating with chimps and taught herself American sign language in the hope that she’d be able to ‘speak’ to Chantek, despite cynicism from other scientists who insisted that orangutans were incapable of such a thing.


Over his nine years with Miles, Chantek racked up more than 150 signed words in his vocabulary, as well as learning to point to things he was signing about. He went to a nursery school with human children, where he enjoyed their company and learning to paint.


He learned to understand the concepts of work and money, being given token for doing chores (like tidying his room) which he could ‘spend’ on his favourite things – ice cream, burgers and car journeys to restaurants. His love for the food chain Dairy Queen was so great that he could direct drivers to the nearest one to his trailer on the university campus, demonstrating impressive spatial understanding.


Although his vocabulary was astounding for an animal thought not to be able to communicate, there were many words that Chantek didn’t know the signs for. This didn’t stop him; he just made up terms with the words he did know. Ketchup was referred to as ‘tomato toothpaste’ and burgers were ‘cheese meat bread’.


With this language came another ability previously thought to be very human: lying. Miles remembers, “he’d tell me he had to go to the bathroom and then go in there just to play with the knobs on the toilet”.


As he grew up and his education progressed, Chantek sat in on lectures at the university. He enjoyed being around the students, and they were so fond of him that his photo was included in the yearbook.


Unfortunately, his life as a blossoming scholar could not continue. Adult male orangutans are immensely strong, with powerful limbs and jaws, and the university began to worry about the potential for incidents. When he escaped from his compound and scared a female student, he was tranquilised and sent back to the research center where he was born.


Dr Miles fought for weeks to see her beloved orangutan, eventually being allowed in to find him locked in a 1.5 x 1.5 metre (five x five foot) cage. Chantek reportedly signed to her “Mother Lyn, get car, go home”, but Miles had to explain that this was where he was to stay. Over the next 11 years, Chantek remained in his cage, becoming depressed and doubling in weight because of his inactivity.


In 1997, Chantek was finally given the chance of a better life when Zoo Atlanta offered him a home in one of their enclosures. Here, he used the signs he could still remember to communicate with keepers. He wasn’t so sure about his fellow orangutans, referring to them as ‘orange dogs’ (he called himself an ‘orangutan person’). At the zoo, he enjoyed painting, making things including tools and music, and stringing beads to make jewellery. He was shy of new people, but was known to be very observant and attentive.


In 2014, the intelligent ape was the star of the PBS documentary ‘The Ape Who Went To College’. His life sparked many discussions on the intelligence of apes, their relationship with humans, and whether they themselves should be considered people.


As of last year, Chantek had been undergoing treatment for heart disease – a common ailment of captive apes – although it’s not certain that this was the cause of his death. He reached a good age, as orangutans are considered old when they reach 35. People who knew him have expressed their sadness and said that he will be greatly missed.


(Feature photo property of Zoo Atlanta)