He lived on the University of Tennessee campus at Chatanooga for nine years, in the company of anthropologist Lyn Miles, who studies the origins of culture and communication, and specializes in the language capacities of great apes.
Longtime UTC resident Chantek the orangutan has died at 39, according to Zoo Atlanta. Although his cause of death is not yet known, the Zoo's Animal Care and Veterinary Teams had been treating Chantek with a regimen of advanced medical therapy targeted at mitigating his progressive heart disease.
Chantek is the oldest orangutan in the northern zoos of America. Zoo Atlanta became Chantek's permanent home in 1997.
A 2014 documentary called "The Ape Who Went to College" showed that Chantek had learned various skills there, including cleaning his room and directing a driving route from the university to a restaurant. But Chantek was getting on in years; the press release states that orangutans are considered geriatric after the age of 35. He used the visual language to communicate with his caretakers, the zoo said.
Zoo officials say Chantek had an engaging personality, used sign language to communicate with zoo keepers. and will be deeply missed.
The Atlanta Zoo began treatment in 2016 to decrease the symptoms of Chantek's heart disease.
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. In many ways, Chantek was raised much like a human. "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", said Hayley Murphy, DVM, Vice President of Animal Divisions.
Cardiac disease, zoo officials said, is the primary cause of death among great apes in zoological populations.
Bornean and Sumatran orangutans are listed as endangered species in the wild.