Sign language speaking orangutan dies at Zoo Atlanta

Chantek the orangutan passed away on Aug. 7 at Zoo Atlanta after battling heart disease for months. Because of his human upbringing in the suburban south and his ability to speak fluent sign language, Chantek has become known across the world. 

Chantek was born on Dec. 17, 1977 at Yerkes Primate Center. He was adopted by researcher Lyn Miles, who raised him like a human child at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and cared for him for around 19 years.

Lyn Miles raises Chantek at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

In his environment, Chantek’s development progressed at remarkable speeds, nearly matching that of a human baby. At nine months Chantek learned his first sign language word, “food,” which put him on the news for the first time. He would learn a dozen basic signs before his first birthday. After two years on the UTC campus, he began to think of his caregivers as family.

“What fascinated me was when we asked Chantek who he was, he told us he was an orangutan person,” Miles said.

As Chantek’s education continued, Miles’ funding dried up and the program would likely end after only a few years.

To get more funding, Chantek and Miles would have to prove that they were making real discoveries and progress. To show their progress, Miles and Southcombe designed a test in which they would present an object and Chantek would tell them what it was in sign language.

“We began to see how interested he was in toys where he could assemble things together or take things apart or build things,” Miles said.

After passing the test with flying colors, onlookers began to see just how intelligent apes like Chantek are.

“You could tell that he was really remarkable. He was studying everything around him in his environment,” said campus police officer Richard Brown.

Chantek’s campus life was good, but Miles wanted more for him.

“We wanted Chantek to understand that there was a bigger world than just the little world he was living in day to day,” Miles said.


Chantek navigating and paying for fast food. “At first they were a little startled, but he was a regular,” Miles said.


As Chantek reached maturity he became more dangerous. At 6 years old he was stronger than any human, had thorough knowledge and understanding of tools and lived in a relaxed enclosure with little security.

After local newspaper, Chattanooga Times, demonized Chantek and his freedoms, the school board was forced to restrict his freedoms.

Chantek was no longer allowed to leave campus casually nor was he allowed to roam campus. Chantek, bored in his small enclosure, began to break out at night.

At first he unwrapped the wire fences and made an exit from his room. In the morning he would twist the wire back so no one would notice.

After several attempts to secure his enclosure, UTC police put up low voltage electric fences. By morning he had used a stick to short circuit the electrical box and escape.

“I’m telling my wife, I’m in this cognitive battle with this orangutan and I’m losing by the way,” Brown said.

As Chantek grew to full size and sexual maturity he became increasingly aggressive. One night at 3 a.m. he reportedly attacked a woman. Left unscathed, it is questionable if Chantek truly attacked; however, it has been documented that apes have sexually assaulted women.

Finally, the decision was made to move Chantek back to the infamous Yerkes Ape Center at Emory University, where he lived in a cell for 11 years and fell into a deep depression.   

In 1997 Chantek was moved to Zoo Atlanta to live in an open ranged habitat with the largest collection of orangutans in America. For the first time in his life, Chantek would live with his own kind.


Disclosure: author volonteers at Zoo Atlanta.