Meet Chantek

Bornean Orangutan, Sumatran Orangutan
December 17, 1977
Orangutan Habitat 2

Chantek is a Bornean/Sumatran hybrid orangutan. He was taught sign language as an infant – he knows about 150 signs. Some of them are modified ASL (American Sign Language) signs because his hands and fingers are too large to perform the detailed ASL signs.  He also understands most spoken English. Although he is shy, and will very often not look directly at strangers, he is very observant and is often listening to everything you say. Chantek enjoys painting, stringing beads, and constructing things.


Chantek is a male orangutan (born December 17, 1977) who arrived at Zoo Atlanta as an adult in 1997. Chantek’s upbringing was very unconventional, as he was reared by humans in a human setting. As part of a language research project, he was taught American Sign Language (ASL) as a juvenile.

Why shouldn’t great apes be reared by humans?

  • There are a number of reasons why primates, especially non-human great apes (orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos) should not be reared in human homes. Humans cannot provide for the developmental needs of infant great apes. All great ape infants will eventually grow into large, extremely powerful adults, by which time a human environment becomes completely unsuitable for them.
  • Great apes have complex social and cognitive needs that cannot be provided for within the context of a private human home. The best option for a young orangutan is always to be raised by another orangutan.
  • It is difficult for humans to relate to the physical power of adult orangutans, which have incredible upper-body strength. Orangutans also have very strong, sharp teeth and powerful jaws, and their feet are just like a second set of hands. These characteristics make it possible for an orangutan to seriously injure a human, even unintentionally.
  • An unfortunate majority of the great apes reared in human settings end up in tragic circumstances or are turned over to the care of people who are not knowledgeable or qualified in the care of primates, often in roadside attractions or unaccredited facilities. We are fortunate that Chantek did not become a statistic. Instead, he was offered a home at Zoo Atlanta, where he has the opportunity to live as an orangutan, surrounded by a team of dedicated, compassionate and highly qualified caregivers.

Why was Zoo Atlanta chosen as Chantek’s home in 1997?

  • Zoo Atlanta has a more than 25-year reputation of leadership in the care of orangutans, and is currently the home of the nation’s largest zoological population of orangutans. The Zoo was chosen for its naturalistic environments and for the expertise of its orangutan caregivers.
  • The orangutan habitats at Zoo Atlanta feature large, open, outdoor spaces where the apes may choose where to spend their time. These habitats include tall climbing structures, hammocks and rope highways – features which are fundamental for the physical and mental well-being of orangutans. Orangutans are arboreal, and in the wild, spend the majority of their time high in the forest canopy.

Is Chantek still able to communicate using sign language at the Zoo?

  • Yes. At the time of Chantek’s arrival nearly 20 years ago, his new caregivers were well aware that he was able to use sign language, and prepared for his arrival by becoming versed in ASL. He has never been discouraged from using sign language; rather, his care team understands and communicates with him in this way on a regular and even daily basis. This is a voluntary activity for him, so he is never made to sign, and he is not known to sign with people he does not know.
  • Chantek’s sign language background is unique among the orangutans at Zoo Atlanta, but this is not the only way he chooses to communicate. Orangutans use many other outlets for communicating, not only with caregivers, but with one another. These include gestures, facial expressions, body language and vocalizations, and Chantek frequently communicates in these ways too.

How does Chantek get along with other orangutans?

  • An important feature of Chantek’s move to Zoo Atlanta was his opportunity for social interactions with other orangutans. Orangutans are solitary apes, and in the wild, an adult male like Chantek would probably choose to spend much of his time alone. However, in zoological settings, where resources such as food are readily available, orangutans seem to enjoy the company of others.
  • Chantek’s social group currently includes two much-younger males, Dumadi and Remy, as well as adult female Madu and her adoptive infant, Keju. While he has had the opportunity to interact with other orangutans of all ages, Chantek seems to prefer and enjoy the company of the youngsters and has an affectionate and playful relationship with them, especially Dumadi. As anyone who has had the pleasure of watching their interactions can see, these voluntary associations seem to be mutually beneficial.

What does Chantek eat at the Zoo?

  • When Chantek first arrived at Zoo Atlanta, he was extremely obese. For the sake of his health, an early goal of his care team was to formulate a nutritious, well-balanced diet for him. Without this attention to his weight, which presented a clear and immediate health risk, and without the diet and healthy weight he has since maintained, it is unlikely he would have lived to his present age.
  • In the time prior to his arrival at Zoo Atlanta, Chantek was given many foods which are unsuitable for orangutans, including human junk food, fast food such as cheeseburgers, and ice cream. In the wild, orangutans consume fruits, leaves, shoots, bark and occasionally birds’ eggs or insects. Not only do orangutans not eat meat, but their digestive systems are not designed to process meat and dairy products.
  • In addition to the regular diet of fruits and vegetables consumed by all of the orangutans at Zoo Atlanta, Chantek enjoys many special treats, including popsicles made of frozen juices or fruits. Like ice cream, these are sweet and are general favorites among all of the orangutans, without containing milk products and artificial sugars their bodies are not designed to consume.

What does Chantek do at the Zoo?

  • Orangutans and other great apes are highly intelligent individuals requiring mental stimulation to live happy, well-adjusted lives. Therefore, it is essential that they have daily opportunities for enriching activities, and the orangutan enrichment program is one of the most robust at Zoo Atlanta.
  • Each orangutan at Zoo Atlanta has his or her own preferred pastimes, and Chantek is no exception. Some of his favorite indoor activities include painting; constructing objects with Tinker Toys or similar building toys; and training activities with his caregivers, with whom he has developed close bonds. At night, he likes to bed down in his hammock, usually with a blanket.
  • Chantek also has access to games on a touch-screen computer, and he lets his caregivers know when he would like to play. The orangutans at Zoo Atlanta are part of a voluntary program in which they use touch-screens – much like an iPad – to engage in matching games, drawing, and other activities. Like many of his fellow orangutans, Chantek is quite the whiz at these games.
  • Zoo Atlanta has a very robust cognitive program for great apes. While providing engaging and fun activities for the apes on a regular basis, this program has also helped to show us just how amazing orangutans are as complex thinkers and problem-solvers.

I visited Zoo Atlanta recently, but I couldn’t see Chantek. Why?

  • There are four separate orangutan habitats at Zoo Atlanta. Each habitat is different, so the orangutan groups have a chance to rotate among the habitats to enjoy the features of each. For this reason, Chantek may or may not be in one of the front habitats on any given day.

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