Sign-language speaking orangutan dies at age 39 at Zoo Atlanta

Chantek was raised not unlike a human child.

The orangutan was taught to communicate with American Sign Language, eventually picking up more than 150 words. He understands most spoken English, though was shy around strangers. He also learned other human habits like cleaning his room. He also figured out how to use the bathroom.

But at age 39, geriatric for an orangutan, Chantek passed away at his home at Zoo Atlanta. The facility sadly announced the death of Chantek on August 7.

While the cause isn’t yet known, Chantek had progressive heart disease.

Chantek at Zoo Atlanta

The zoo is in mourning.

Veterinarian Hayley Murphy, who is the zoo’s vice president of animal divisions, fondly remembered Chantek.

“Chantek will be deeply missed by his family here at Zoo Atlanta. He had such a unique and engaging personality and special ways of relating to and communicating with those who knew him best. 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,” she said.

“Chantek’s long life is a great testament to the dedication of his care team and to the work of the Great Ape Heart Project, the combined efforts of which made it possible for us to give him the best care and quality of life the zoological community has to offer,” she added.

Chantek, a Bornea/Sumatran hybrid orangutan was born Dec. 17, 1977 at the Yerkes Language Research Center.

And arrived at Zoo Atlanta 20 years later.

“Although he frequently used ASL to communicate with his caregivers, with whom he developed close personal bonds throughout his years at Zoo Atlanta,” the zoo said. “He was shy about signing with individuals he did not know and often chose forms of communication which are more typical of orangutans, such as vocalizations and unique hand gestures.”

Almost a year ago, the zoo announced it had started a progressive medical regimen to treat Chantek’s symptoms of heart disease.

Experts even performed the world’s first voluntary echocardiogram (EKG) on an awake orangutan. Chantek was treated similar to humans with heart disease and put on a healthy, low-sodium diet.

The Zoo Atlanta Veterinary Team is launching a regimen of progressive therapy for Chantek, a 38-year-old male orangutan, to mitigate symptoms of progressing heart disease. Chantek, who has lived at Zoo Atlanta since 1997, is one of the Zoo’s senior great apes and is the second-oldest of the Zoo’s orangutans, which are considered geriatric after the age of about 35. His condition is considered guarded as the team begins a new program of treatment and continues close monitoring. Thanks to the ongoing successes of the Zoo’s positive reinforcement training program, Chantek participated in the world’s first voluntary echocardiogram (EKG) ever performed with an awake orangutan. This procedure monitors the heart’s electrical rhythms and was used to help in the diagnosis of Chantek’s heart disease. Like other orangutans at Zoo Atlanta, Chantek also participates in voluntary cardiac ultrasounds, blood pressure readings and blood draws, all of which are valuable means of monitoring his condition. As is often the case for human cardiac patients, Chantek is also on a healthy, low-sodium diet. “Zoo Atlanta is fortunate to have such a dedicated animal care team and to be the base for the Great Ape Heart Project, all of which have made it possible to diagnose Chantek and develop a treatment and monitoring plan through positive reinforcement training. Monitoring for cardiac disease through the use of voluntary positive reinforcement training is only possible due to the close relationship that exists between Chantek and his care team. In fact, this has helped greatly in detecting the progression of Chantek’s cardiac condition,” said Hayley Murphy, DVM, Vice President of Animal Divisions and Director of the Great Ape Heart Project based at Zoo Atlanta ( “Our primary goal for Chantek is to make sure he is comfortable, has a great quality of life, and provide him with the best medical care available.” Read the full article in the Headlines section of our homepage at

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A necropsy will be performed to determine an exact cause of death.

But by all measures, Chantek lived a long life.

Both Bornean orangutans and Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered in the wild due largely to habitat destruction and human encroachment. Sumatran orangutans could be extinct within 10 years, according to experts.

Photos Zoo Atlanta

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