Orangutan who communicated through sign language dies at Zoo Atlanta

Chantek, a 39-year-old male orangutan known around the world for his ability to use American Sign Language to communicate, has died at Zoo Atlanta.

The zoo announced it was treating Chantek for symptoms of heart disease in September, but the cause of his Monday death won’t be known until a necropsy — the animal equivalent of an autopsy — is conducted.

Chantek was born December 17, 1977, at the Yerkes Language Research Center in Lawrenceville, and later lived with researchers at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

Before arriving at Zoo Atlanta in 1997, Chantek was taught sign language by researchers, including anthropology professor Lyn Miles. He is believed to have known at least 150 signs.

Miles considered Chantek her foster son and "the first orangutan person," according to a 2014 TED Talks event. Her work with him was featured in the 2014 PBS documentary "The Ape Who Went to College."

Chantek had “special ways” of relating to those who knew him best, according to Zoo Atlanta's Vice President of Animal Divisions Hayley Murphy.

“It has been our privilege to have had him with us for 20 years and to have been given the opportunity to offer him a naturalistic environment where he could get to know and live with his orangutan family,” Murphy said in a statement. Chantek’s family group included 34-year-old female Madu, 2-year-old female Keju and males Dumadi, 10, and Remy, 6.

Lynn Yakubinis, lead keeper of primates, appreciated Chantek's gentleness and patience with the younger orangutans.

“I loved it when he would get a sparkle in his eye and try and engage me in some new game or a request of his,” Yakubinis said. “He would tap his finger to get my attention and then ask for something — an enrichment toy, a food item he could see, or just attention.”

The death has resonated far beyond Atlanta. After hearing Miles interviewed about it, children's illustrator Kate Slater, who lives in England, posted sketches of Chantek on social media.

“(Miles) spoke so movingly about him and all the work they’d done together, and orangutans are one of my favourite animals to illustrate, so I naturally just picked up my pencil,” Slater said in an email.

💔 . . . . . #orangutan #chantek #ape #greatape #onmydesk #sketchbook #atlantazoo #zooatlanta #orangutans #pencil #drawing

A post shared by Kate Slater (@kateslater) on

Chantek's heart condition was regularly monitored by the Zoo Atlanta-based Great Ape Heart Project, which aims to treat the cardiac disease in gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos. The disease is a primary cause of mortality among great apes.

Chantek participated in the "first voluntary EKG" ever performed with an awake orangutan, a procedure that was used to aid in the diagnosis of his condition, according to the zoo.

Caregivers who worked with Chantek on a daily basis are working to decide the best way to honor his memory, zoo officials said. His remains will be cremated and returned to the zoo.

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