Chantek the Orangutan is languishing in an Atlanta zoo, and the sign language he was proficient at while growing up among humans lies wasted. Cared for and raised by anthropologist Dr. H. Lyn Miles from nine months of age in a trailer at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Chantek was banished to a zoo setting totally alien to the world he knew for the crime of “growing up.”
Chantek was integrated into human society through a process Dr. Miles, 72, calls “enculturation.” She describes him as the only enculturated orangutan in the world. There is a marked difference between Chantek growing up surrounded by people who engaged and mentored him, and Chantek now a 38-year-old adult languishing in a large “prison” with orangutan jail mates, his changing personality defined by two different worlds. The earlier version of Chantek was a lover of life and eager to learn, while the later Chantek moped around, depressed.
Chantek lived with Dr. Miles in a trailer on campus from 1978 when he was 9-months-old, until 1986, and she raised him as a human child and taught him to communicate with sign language because he could not vocalize. Then came the unfortunate incident whereby he was reported to have “attacked” a young woman on campus. Though she was unharmed in the hyped-up affair, university administrators felt obligated to respond because Dr. Miles’ project had proven unable to keep a highly intelligent orangutan from being properly confined.
Without any explanation, Chantek was tranquilized at eight yeas of age and transported to the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta, a research laboratory where he was kept in a small cage. No visitors were allowed to see him for a number of weeks until Dr. Miles, his constant companion since he was a baby, finally gained access and found a completely different orangutan from the one she had known, his spirit broken and lacking his former zest for life.
There seemed to be a conspiracy among the zookeepers who felt that a simple life with other orangutans was a better life for him. However, Chantek repudiated this train of thought by referring to himself as an “orangutan-person” and the others like him as “orange dogs.”
During one of her visits, Dr. Miles said that Chantek signed to her “mother Lyn, get car, go home,” while holding back tears, she asked if he was ill. Chantek signed back “hurt,” and when she asked where it hurt, he signed “feelings.”
According to Project Chantek, Dr. Miles’ orangutan grew a vocabulary exceeding 150 signs over the years and understood spoken English. On his own, he formulated signs like “eye-drink” for contact lens solution and “Dave-missing-finger” as a descriptive name for a friend. Learning at a level similar to that of human children, he could reference and point out objects much like human children. He was self-aware and could groom himself in a mirror. He could sign in mental play to manipulate and learned the game “Simon Says.” He painted works of art, assembled things, and used tools. A growing number of experts agreed that his intelligence, grasp of language and general behavior qualified the orangutan to be regarded as a “person.”
Following Chantek where he was situated, Dr. Miles moved her project to the Division of Behavioral Biology at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in 1986, and in 1997, Project Chantek relocated to Zoo Atlanta where her research continues. According to her, the orangutan has expanded his sign vocabulary to include “tomato,” “kiwi,” “secret place,” “star,” “throw,” “Kathy,” “key-man,” and “favorite.”
According to Student Science, Dr. Miles belongs to a group of scientists who believe that captive apes deserve a better life than what Chantek gets in a zoo. As president of a foundation called Animal Nation, once known as “ApeNet,” she is getting celebrities on board a campaign to create much-needed preserves for the orangutan and other primates.
Signs from the American Sign Language for the deaf constitute Chantek’s vocabulary. As a toddler growing up, the orangutan got his sense of identity from a group of caregivers and student volunteers acting as his “family,” signing along with him. Human-like, Chantek was able to ask for and get a squirrel and cat for pets, and go for car rides to the lake, park, and fast food restaurants and even the circus.
A Chantek.org update reports Dr. Miles working to improve Chantek’s quality of life. Of the sad orangutan-person separated from his human friends and family, she has this to say.
“My passionate and life-long commitment is to see Chantek and other enculturated apes as persons living in culture-bearing communities, with agency and choice.”
[Photo via Facebook]