Zoo Atlanta has announced that Chantek, a 39-year-old male orangutan who had learned to communicate through sign language, died on Aug. 7. He was being treated at the Grant Park zoo for progressive heart disease, although the cause of his death is pending after a necropsy. ,

Chantek was one of the oldest living male orangutans within the North American population of individuals overseen by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Orangutan Species Survival Plan (SSP). Orangutans are considered geriatric after the age of about 35.

Born December 17, 1977, at the Yerkes Language Research Center, Chantek was a beloved member of the Zoo’s orangutan population for 20 years, arriving at Zoo Atlanta in 1997. He was well-known for his knowledge of American Sign Language (ASL), learned prior to his arrival at the Zoo. Although he frequently used ASL to communicate with his caregivers, with whom he developed close personal bonds throughout his years at Zoo Atlanta, 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.

“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,” said Hayley Murphy, DVM, Vice President of Animal Divisions. “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.”

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.