Co-Pro Brokering +44(0)7812 084448
Distribution +44 (0) 7968 378526
The story of Chantek the orang-utan who lived as a human until the age of nine, as part of a radical language experiment at an American university. He learned sign language and came to describe himself as am “orang-utan person”. He is now in his mid-thirties and lives in Zoo Atlanta.
In 1978 Dr. Lyn Miles at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga became the human ‘foster mother’ to Chantek, a baby orang-utan. In a ground breaking study she raised Chantek as if he were a human, in order to explore the role of our culture in making us who we are. The study asked whether an ape, in a human setting, would become more like a person. Acquiring human language was central to the project and Chantek learned to communicate using ASL (American Sign Language). She chose ot work with an orang-utan as until this point they had been “the forgotten ape” of language research.
Miles ensured her unusual foster-son, had all the trappings of middle class life - including toys, TV and birthday parties. Says Miles; “Chantek was like everyone else, just a little hairier. Chantek grew to be very partial to treats such as M&Ms, cheeseburgers and ice cream. He made up his own ‘patois’ terms for items, using the words he knew, such as Tomato Ketchup which he called “tomato toothpaste” .
Chantek became a local celebrity making several TV appearances and was a well-known figure on the campus. Ann Southcombe, who had worked with the sign language trained gorilla, Koko, joined the team and worked with Chantek as his primary carer for six years.
Chantek showed an affinity for tool use and became a great escape artist who was able to manipulate tools and locks to get out of the enclosure on the campus, despite the best attempts of the university to contain him. “He was outsmarting us at every turn” says the former head of security at UTC, Richard Brown.
After one escape too many, and a reported attack on a student, Chantek was returned by the university to the Yerkes Primate Research Facility in Atlanta, where he been born. The separation plunged Lyn into despair and she says that Chantek, whose weight ballooned during his confinement at Yerkes, suffered from depression. On one visit Chantek used sign language to say to Lyn, through the bars of his cage, “Mother Lyn, get the keys, go home”.
After 11 years at Yerkes Chantek was rehoused by Zoo Atlanta after the intervention of the zoo director Dr Terry Maple in 1997. Maple is credited with turning round the fortunes of Zoo Atlanta after a series of animal welfare scandals. The zoo now has the largest collection of orangs in North America and Chantek has become integrated into one of its orang-utan groups.
Lyn Miles’s language research with Chantek continued periodically. But her relationship with the zoo deteriorated and now her only access to Chantek is as a regular visitor. The zoo does not conduct language research with Chantek, although he is involved with cognitive testing conducted on the entire orang group.
What began as a scientific experiment evolved into an emotional bond between a human and an ape who considers himself “an orang-utan person”. This film documents the highs and lows of this unique relationship between Lyn and Chantek, and witnesses a fascinating reunion.
Part of a 4 part-series called "My Wild Affair", which tells extraordinary stories of the bonds between humans and their animal companions, including an orphaned baby elephant, a rhino who joined a family, and a harbor seal that entered the human world but remained wild at heart.
- Episode Title : The Ape Who Went to College
- Format : 1 x 60'
- Production company : Blink Films and Newroad Media
- Year of production : 2013
- Commissioning channels : PBS, Animal Planet Canada, Discovery, SBS Australia