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UTC professors remember world famous "college student" orangutan Chantek

Chantek, a 39 year old orangutan, passed away at the Zoo Atlanta August 7. (Image: The Zoo Atlanta)

Chattanooga is feeling the loss of a world famous orangutan that passed away this week.

Chantek died Monday at the Zoo Atlanta at age 39. He spent most of his first 10 years in Chattanooga, among students and researchers at UTC.

Anthropology Professor Dr. Lyn Miles was given a grant to bring Chantek here back in the 1970s.

"He lived here for over a decade like a typical college student, only he was a little hairy and a little orange," Miles said.

She said he was intelligent and quick to learn new tasks.

"Chantek could play checkers, use a computer, he's the only animal in the world to make jewelry," Miles said. "The sky is the limit for how intelligent they are and what they could learn to be, that helps with my grief."

She says he loved to play games and was full of personality.

"We would ask him where did all the cookies go in the package, and he would say oh somebody else ate them."

She recalled a time in the rain when he showed how empathetic he could be.

"I was with him and it started to rain...he had a plastic wrap that he put on his head, then he looked over and saw I was getting all wet. He tore it in half and he told me to put it on my head."

Lyn says his cognitive abilities were similar to a 7 year old child.

"The most amazing thing about Chantek is there was a person inside there. It wasn't like stupid pet tricks, he would argue with you, he would question you with raising his eyebrows or asking a question mark in the air."

Fellow UTC Professor Warren Roberts helped teach Chantek more than 1,000 sign language symbols. He says the power of language can help intelligent animals rise to their full potential.

"We can empower them to help us help make their lives better and help ensure the future of their species," Roberts said.

Lyn remembers when she last saw Chantek this year.

"He picked flowers for me and he threw the bouquet across the way for me, and I have that in my house now."

Lyn is hoping to keep Chantek's legacy alive by starting a Chantek Cultural Center where intelligent animals can come together to live, learn and rise to their full potentials.

Lyn said Chantek was moved from UTC because he got too big and was able to unlock gates and roam about campus on his own.

He came to The Zoo Atlanta in 1997.


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