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February 28, 2014

Don't Mind Me, I'm Just Pissed Off

My husband is a good man. Last night he had to endure two hours of listening to me pop off after watching a documentary about an orangutan named Chantek. Chantek was raised like a human baby (crib and all) at the University of Tennessee as part of a research project. Chantek was taught sign language, which he used to express himself in the same way humans do. Chantek tells you exactly what he wants to eat when he’s hungry, he asks for cuddles, and tells you when his feelings are hurt. He will even pair up words for things he has no signs for, such as “tomato toothpaste” for “ketchup.” 

Treating Chantek like a person made him believe he was a person. He understood the concept of earning and saving money to buy things he wanted, he would ask for “work” to perform in exchange for a drink. He even understood that a whole world existed outside of his home and could navigate you to his favorite Dairy Queen where he would use the money he saved to buy ice cream. Chantek described himself as an “orangutan person.” His ability to communicate gave him the ultimate power- a voice. 

And then it was all taken away. Chantek’s freedom was stripped when the research project ended, forcing him to move into a small cage where he was quarantined for 11 years. He was depressed, often begging to be driven him home in a car. Then, he was adopted by the Atlanta Zoo, where they placed him with other orangutans that he called “orange dogs,” not recognizing that they were just like him. Still, the zoo believes he should be treated like an ape. They don’t sign with him and he’s on a vegetarian diet. 

The woman responsible for giving Chantek his voice is Dr. H. Lyn Miles. Chantek calls her mom and often signs that he loves her. Dr. Miles visits Chantek in the zoo but gets no special privileges. She stands on the outside of the exhibit like any other member of the public and signs with Chantek, where he pleads for meat, ice cream, and freedom. 

So I’m pissed. Everyone in Chantek’s life has wronged him. Dr. Miles wronged him by teaching him to be human when he didn’t stand a chance being treated like one. Chantek went from being heard, listened to, and engaged with, to being ignored, silenced, and put away. For 11 years Chantek told Dr. Miles his feelings were hurt and that he hated being caged. And once he found a new home at the zoo, they wronged him by pretending he was just another ape. The hammocks at the zoo were secured by small washers, the same washers he used as money 11 years prior. He would remove the washers from the hammocks and give them to the zoo keeper so that he could “buy” a drink. The zoo keepers laughed and ignored the gesture, chalking it up as just another thing Chantek will need to unlearn.

Chantek has suffered enough. He's 37 years old and still has half his life left to live. He deserves more because he is more. He deserves to be treated with dignity and he deserves to be HEARD. Just imagine: the only language speaking ape in the entire world…and no ones listening. 

Shame on you Dr. Lyn Miles, the University of Tennessee, and the Atlanta Zoo. 

Update: I've been emailed by individuals wanting to know what they can do to make a difference in Chantek's life. There is no clear answer but writing directly to Atlanta Zoo would make a huge difference: advancement@zooatlanta.org or by mail to: Zoo Atlanta- 800 Cherokee Ave SE Atlanta GA 30315-1440.