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Chantek (born December 17, 1977, at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgiamarker) is a male orangutan who has mastered the use of a number of intellectual skills, including sign language, taught by anthropologist Dr. Lyn Miles. In Malay and Indonesian, cantik (pronounced chantik) means lovely or "beautiful". Rather than confinement in a zoo exhibit, Chantek has been kept captive in a habitat a short ride from the main zoo grounds of Zoo Atlantamarker, ever since the Yerkes Center gave him to the zoo in 1997.

An intellectual primate

Chantek has a vocabulary of several hundred signs, and understands both spoken English and American Sign Language. Chantek makes and uses tools, creates paintings, necklaces, crafts and music, and is one of only a handful of signing primates scattered across the United Statesmarker. The late Washoe, a 42-year-old female chimpanzee, was the first of the signing apes and one of the most famous. Koko, a signing gorilla, lives in Woodside, Californiamarker.

Orangutans comprise an intelligent great ape genus native to Indonesia (Sumatra, Kalimantan), who have long arms and reddish, sometimes brown, hair. The term "orangutan" is derived from the Indonesian phrase orang hutan, meaning "forest person". Males have characteristic cheekpads, which only grow with sufficient testosterone levels, and use a deeply resonant voice to make resounding 'long calls', and tend to spend months alone in the wild without significant interaction with other orangutans.

Early life

From the age of nine months, Dr. Miles raised Chantek as a signing infant, rearing him as much as possible as a human child on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanoogamarker. Miles toilet-trained Chantek, and gave him chores and an allowance, using steel washer as money. His favorite way to spend it was on fast food.

Born at Yerkes, Chantek was transferred to the university when he was nine months old to learn from Dr. Miles. He returned to Yerkes for a short time, and then spent about nine years living under constant supervision in a specially-adapted trailer on the UTC campus. His current habitat at Zoo Atlanta is an enclosure that affords him private space and is expansive with plenty of trees for swinging from branch to branch (brachiation).

Dr. Miles was the director of the project and spent the majority of her time teaching anthropology at the University. Chantek was actually taught, trained and cared for by her hired assistant and a group of dedicated student volunteers from the UTC Anthropology department.

Chantek as a person

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 Dr. Miles, regard him as possessing personhood.

Effects of captivity

During Chantek's captivity at the Yerkes Primate Center, his weight ballooned to over 500 lb (230 kg), probably due to depression, small quarters, a lack of activity, and experiments that used candies and other treats as rewards. A popular account mis-attributed this weight gain to his prior diet at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga—but in fact, his weight when he left Tennessee was around 100 lb, not 500 lb—the gain all occurred at the Primate Center. After he left the Yerkes Center, Zoo Atlanta staff were able to diet Chantek down to his present weight of around 245 lb (110 kg).

Orangutan 'personhood' and conservation efforts

Miles would prefer freedom for Chantek, even going so far as to advocate personhood for Chantek and other great apes. 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 further her objectives, Miles created 'Project Chantek', seeking to better understand the mind of an orangutan. Miles hopes her findings will help ascertain how human symbolic systems may have 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, and to foster education programs that will facilitate understanding of great apes as persons, thereby building a bridge 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


  • H.L. Miles (1990) "The cognitive foundations for reference in a signing orangutan" in S.T. Parker and K.R. Gibson (eds.) Language" and intelligence in monkeys and apes: Comparative Developmental Perspectives, Cambridge University Press, pp 511-539

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