Chantek, the beloved orangutan who was one of the first apes to learn sign language, has passed away at age 39.
Chantek rose to fame after “attending university,” living with anthropologist Lyn Miles at the University of Tennessee for nine years. Miles and other caretakers taught him over 150 words in American Sign Language, as well as important human skills like cleaning his room, using the bathroom, and directing a car route.
His tenacity for learning made him the star of a 2014 PBS documentary “The Ape Who Went to College.” In many ways, Chantek was raised much like a human. In fact, he sometimes referred to himself as an “orangutan person.”
Chantek was among a special group of apes who knew ASL, including Koko, the gorilla, and Washoe, the chimpanzee.
The BBC described the friendly ape:
Zoo Atlanta said that Chantek frequently used sign language to communicate with keepers but “he was shy about signing with individuals he did not know and often chose forms of communication which are more typical of orangutans, such as vocalisations and unique hand gestures”.
“Chantek will be deeply missed by his family here at Zoo Atlanta,” said Hayley Murphy, vice president of the zoo’s animal divisions.
“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.”
Orangutans typically live about 35-45 years in the wild. Chantek was born at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Georgia. He returned to the Atlanta Zoo to live out his later years with other orangutans, including his friends 34-year-old female Madu and playful 10-year-old male Dumadi. While the cause of death has not been announced, he was being treated for heart disease, a leading cause of death among captive orangutans.
Miles shared an example of his communication abilities with the BBC: “The last time I saw him not too long ago he asked me for meat cheese bread [a cheeseburger] and for me to get the car and take him home.”