Chantek, an Orangutan Who Knew Sign Language, Has Died at 39

Cheryl Sanders
August 11, 2017

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

Chantek the adorable orange orangutan who stole our hearts for 39 years has very sadly passed away.

He was one of the first apes to learn sign language, he could (but sometimes wouldn't) clean his room, he made and used tools and could memorise and direct routes to various locations, though his favourite journey was always to a fast-food restaurant or a restaurant. Zoo Atlanta became Chantek's permanent home in 1997.

An orangutan who reached a global audience in the 2014 documentary The Ape Who Went to College has died in the United States at the age of 39. Chantek lived with a female orangutan, Madu, 34, a male orangutan named Dumadi who is 10, six-year-old Remy and two-year-old Keju, a female orangutan.

As noted by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Zoo Atlanta officials say employees who have worked closely with Chantek are now trying to decide how best to honor the orangutan's memory.

Chantek was born at the Yerkes National Primate Research Centre in Georgia and was sent to live with anthropologist Lyn Miles at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

In a 2014 TEDx Talk, Miles referred to herself as a "cross-species, cross-foster mom".

Chantek was among a special group of apes who knew ASL, including Koko, the gorilla, and Washoe, the chimpanzee. He learned at least 150 words, and understood spoken English.

For the past 20 years, Chantek has lived at Zoo Atlanta where he used his signing skills to communicate with keepers.

For all his talents, Chantek remained strangely shy about conversing with humans, only signing with people he knew and reverting to orangutan sounds and gestures other times.

"Chantek will be deeply missed by his family here at Zoo Atlanta", said Hayley Murphy, Vice President of Animal Divisions, according to the press release.

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

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