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Chantek, born December 17, 1977, at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia, is a male hybrid Sumatran/Borneon orangutan[1] who has mastered the use of a number of intellectual skills, including sign language, taught by American anthropologists Lyn Miles and Ann Southcombe. In Malay and Indonesian, cantik (pronounced chanteek) means "lovely" or "beautiful".

An intellectual primate[edit]

Chantek has a vocabulary of over 150 modified ESL signs, and he also understands spoken English. Chantek makes and uses tools and even understands the concepts of money and work-exchange. He possesses the spatial comprehension to direct a driving-route from UTC (the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga) to the closest Dairy Queen, and the mental comprehension to refer to events that happened years ago.[2] He enjoys creative projects and makes paintings, necklaces, crafts and music.

Early life[edit]

Born at Yerkes, Chantek was transferred to UTC when he was nine months old. Miles was the director of a research project to study apes, and she and a few student volunteers cared for him the first several months after his arrival. Dr. Miles taught him his first signs, "food-eat" and "drink". Soon after this her teaching schedule made it necessary to hire an assistant, Ann Southcombe. Ann had experience raising 7 baby gorillas at the Cincinnati Zoo and was the first "mother" and "teacher" for Michael, the young gorilla companion to Koko the first signing gorilla. Under the direction of Dr. Miles, Chantek was raised much as a human child yet also had time to be an orangutan. Ann toilet trained Chantek, much as she did Michael. He was given chores, like pick up his toys or sit for a signing test for which he was given an allowance, using steel washers as money.

After years of loving service, she hired a full-time assistant to give Chantek all the benefits of early education. As Miles taught anthropology at UTC, she also gathered a group of dedicated student volunteers to help with the project, such as Warren Roberts, who now teaches anthropology classes at the college as of Spring 2017. [3] For years, the entire campus was captivated by Chantek's presence.

Chantek spent almost nine years living under constant supervision in a specially adapted trailer on the UTC campus. He went to classes regularly and was so beloved by the academic community that his photo was included in the school yearbooks. However, as his size increased, and as containing him in his compound became a problem, the administration feared an accident/lawsuit, and they returned him to Yerkes following an incident in which he escaped from his compound and caught a female student by surprise. For the next eleven years of his life, he was confined to a 5x5 cage, where he entered a depression and put on weight due to his inactive lifestyle at Yerkes. When his caretakers were permitted to visit, he continually signed for them to get car keys and take him home. Finally, in 1997 the Zoo Atlanta offered him sanctuary in a nice enclosure with trees for swinging from branch to branch (brachiation).

When Chantek first arrived at the zoo the hammocks would be taken apart throughout the night and in the morning he would approach the staff and hand them washers. They then realized Chantek would deconstruct the hammocks in order to retrieve the washers so he could buy a drink as he used to do as an adolescent.[4]

Present Day[edit]

In 2013 Animal Planet aired a documentary about Chantek's life and experience. The show was a part of their A Wild Affair series and was titled "The Ape that went to College." His former caretaker Lyn would visit him and he would still use signs especially when she is present. Although he hasn't had soda, ice cream, cheeseburgers, or candy in 10 years he will still ask for them in sign language.[4]

As of 2015, Chantek still resides at Zoo Atlanta in one of their orangutan enclosure with a small group of orangutans. At the age of 38 he enjoys painting, stringing beads, and constructing things. He is shy and quiet but attentively listens to everything and is highly observant of his surroundings.[1]

Chantek as a person[edit]

Like children, Chantek prefers to use names rather than pronouns - as the reference is fixed - even when talking to a person. He even invents signs of his own (e.g., 'eye-drink' for contact lens solution, and 'Dave missing finger' for a special friend). He developed referential ability as early as most human children, and points to and shows objects just like humans do. Chantek uses adjectives to specify attributes, such as "red bird", and "white cheese food eat", yet he overgeneralizes in interesting ways, too. For example, he uses the sign 'Lyn' for all caregivers, but never for strangers.

Chantek also demonstrates self-awareness, by grooming himself in a mirror and by using signs in mental planning and deception. Rather than simply exhibiting conditioned responses, as critics of primate intellect contend, Chantek has learned roles - and role reversals - in games like 'Simon Says'. Like many other orangutans who have demonstrated problem solving skills, Chantek exhibits certain intuitive and thinking character traits comparable to the rationality used in human engineering. His intellectual and linguistic abilities make some scientists, including Miles and Dawn Prince-Hughes, regard him as possessing personhood.[5]

Effects of captivity[edit]

At the age of nine, he was transferred to a small, solitary cage where he would be held for the next 11 years of his life. Chantek's weight ballooned to 500 pounds during this time. When the Zoo Atlanta staff offered to him sanctuary in 1997, they had to restrict his diet to help regain his health and bring his weight back to 245 pounds.

Orangutan 'personhood' and conservation efforts[edit]

The term personhood is often ascribed by experts to animals who demonstrate conscious awareness, language, and acculturation. Miles and like-minded advocates seek to expand personhood to great apes, to the extent that—eventually—legal rights of personhood would be conferred under the law.

To accomplish this goal, Miles created 'Project Chantek', to further study the orangutan's mind. She hopes her research will help ascertain how human symbolic systems evolved and developed. Uniquely, her project emphasizes development of cultural models and processes in Chantek’s upbringing. Her work is supported by the Chantek Foundation, whose mission is to develop greater scientific understanding of orangutans, to support cultural and language research with orangutans, to promote orangutan conservation and establish culture-based great ape sanctuaries, thereby building a bridge of understanding between humans and great apes.

The Chantek Foundation is a member of ApeNet, founded by musician Peter Gabriel to link great apes through the internet, creating the first interspecies internet communication.

See also[edit]


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