Chantek the Orangutan dies at 39

First Orangutan to learn sign language and speak with humans.

Chantek attend a nursery School and university, he could draw.

He could play practical jokes and tell lies.


Chantek the Orangutan was the first orangutan to learn and understand sign language and ‘speak’ with humans and could even play practical jokes. Chantek was born in captivity at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center near Atlanta, Georgia. But after being rejected by his mother, he was chosen for a unique experiment at the University of Tennessee in 1978.

Professor Lyn Miles,  raised and taught chantek until he was eight years-old,. Sometimes I felt like his servant, but I very much thought of Chantek as my foster son she said.

“I feel like I had the luckiest job in the world.”

Chantek learning sign language from Lyn

Chantek live in a trailer with Lyn, (an anthropologist) where he was raised as a human child. Chantek was usually dressed in nappies and romper suits. Lyn goal was to study whether apes could learn human behaviour.

Chantek was able to learn how to sign more than 150 words. If he didn’t know a suitable word, he would combine several others to achieve the effect said Lyn. For example, Ketchup became “tomato toothpaste” while his beloved Big Macs were “cheese meat bread”.

Lyn began sending chantek to nursery after been Encouraged by Chantek’s success with sign language. He proved a hit with his classmates. He loved painting, having his fur vacuumed & being tickled.

Chantek could  make his own breakfast in the morning and tidy his room. Lyn says: “He had toys and he had human doctors, not vets.”

Chantek was given pocket money, which he spent on cheeseburgers and ice cream, trips to the amusement park, and rides to the local eaterie. 👏😯. He started going to lectures with the university students. He attended the university of Tennessee at- Chattanooga. He even learned to lie, something he did on rare occasions say three times a week. According to Lyn, “He’d tell me he had to go to the bathroom, then go in there just to play.” For eight years, his life was like a delightful Disney movie. But Chantek problems became numerous as he grew.


Chantek’s foster mum,  Lyn.


Chantek was sent back to the research lab after he reacted angrily and was accused of attacking the student, though Lyn claims he merely scared them. The university wouldn’t take any chances and chantek was backed to been locked in a cage measuring just 5ft by 5ft. Lyn had to fight  and wait for four weeks before she could see him. When she did, he began signing: “Mother Lyn, get the car, go home”.

Unfortunately, Chantek was held back at the centre for 11 years. His weight doubled to more than 35 stone. Lyn says: “It was emotionally devastating, in terms of my scientific results and also personal, as his foster mum.”

He was later moved to Zoo Atlanta and introduced to his kind ( other orangutans) but couldn’t accept he was the same species. Chantek started to forget words he learnt though he never forgot how to tell Lyn: “I love you.”

Unfortunately, Chantek eventually developed heart failure and died in the zoo. Doctors couldn’t save him.

Lyn wants a statue of Chantek at the University of Tennessee at- Chattanooga as a befitting tribute to a remarkable animal, who showed what humans and apes can achieve together.