Chantek was a male orangutan raised by anthropologist Lyn Miles at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He participated in a unique experiment held to test whether an ape could learn human behavior. In later life, Chantek was the subject for a documentary called "The Ape That Went to College" by Animal Planet. He lived in his own room, rather than a cage, and his daily experience was something like a human child's life.
"I am a cross-species, cross-foster mom," — said Dr. Lyn Miles during her TED talk.
With the help of Lyn Miles he learned to make and use tools, to clean his room, to make phone calls and to direct a driver so that he would bring him to his favorite drive-through fast food restaurant or an ice-cream store.
But most importantly, he learned American Sign Language and started communicating with humans, and was able to maintain a real conversation. The only reason he couldn't master oral speech was that orangutan mouths are not designed for it.
Chantek soon became integrated in the social life of the campus he lived in: as a youngster, he attended a kindergarten on a par with children of the university staff. When Chantek grew older, his photo appeared in the university yearbooks: among the human faces a "human orangutan" face can be seen.
He attended lectures and played tricks on students until he became too big and strong to roam freely around the campus. He was taken to the Yerkes Primate Centre in Atlanta, a research lab, where he was imprisoned in a small cage.
When Dr. Lyn Miles was allowed to see him, the orangutan looked devastated. According to Daily Mail, he then signed: "Mother Lyn, get the car, go home." Dr. Miles asked if he was ill. "Hurt," said Chantek. She asked him where it hurt: "Feelings," he replied.
In 1997, after 11 years in a cage, he was transported to the Zoo Atlanta.
He spent the last 20 years of his life there, among other orangutans. He once called them "orange dogs" but continued to refer to himself as an "orangutan person."
His brilliant intelligence and "engaging personality" helped him develop strong bonds with the caretakers, whom he sometimes called "Lyn", after Dr. Miles. According to the Zoo's statement, he "frequently used ASL to communicate with his caregivers" 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 vocalizations and unique hand gestures."
The cause of Chantek's death is so far unknown, but it is highly likely that he died from a cardiac disease, for which he was treated since 2016. Orangutans are considered geriatric after the age of about 35, so he lived a long life.
"Chantek will be deeply missed by his family here at Zoo Atlanta," said Hayley Murphy, DVM, Vice President of Animal Divisions.