Chantek the sign-language speaking orangutan raised like a human dies

Orangutan Chantek

Chantek, a male orangutan who was among the first apes to learn sign language, could clean his room and memorise the way to a fast-food restaurant, died on Monday at age 39, Zoo Atlanta said.

The orangutan's cause of death hasn't been determined, but zoo officials said the ape had been treated for progressive heart disease.

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 will be deeply missed by his family here at Zoo Atlanta", Hayley Murphy, vice president of Zoo Atlanta's animal division, said. 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.

Born in Atlanta, Chantek was raised as a human by an anthropologist from Tennessee, Lyn Miles, who taught him sign language. 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 auto route. "It has been our privilege to have had him with us for 20 years".

Zoo Atlanta announced the orangutan's death on its website.


Chantek was born on December 17, 1977 and arrived to Atlanta's zoo 20 years later.

A necropsy, or the animal equivalent of an autopsy, is being performed through the Zoo's partnership with the University of Georgia Zoo and Exotic Animal Pathology Service in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Preliminary results should be available in a few weeks.

Cardiac disease (CVD) is a primary cause of mortality among great apes in zoological populations. The ape was well-known for his knowledge of American Sign Language, which he learned before arriving to Zoo Atlanta.

A spokesperson from Zoo Atlanta shared the sadness everyone feels concerning the great ape passing.

Zoo Atlanta is now home to 11 orangutans and 21 gorillas.

Bornean and Sumatran orangutans are listed as endangered species in the wild.

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