US orangutan Chantek, 'the ape who went to college,' dies at 39

ATLANTA (Reuters) - Chantek, a male orangutan who was among the first apes to learn sign language, could clean his room and memorized the way to a fast-food restaurant, died on Monday at age 39, Zoo Atlanta said.

Chantek, who was taught by a trainer who raised him like her own child, was being treated for heart disease, the zoo said in a statement. A necropsy will determine the cause of death.

"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," said Hayley Murphy, vice president of the zoo's animal divisions.

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Zoo Atlanta photo shows Chantek the orangutan after the passing of the male orangutan who was among the first apes to learn sign language, in this photo released on social media in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., August 7, 2017.

(Courtesy Zoo Atlanta/Handout via REUTERS)

FILE PHOTO: Giant Panda Lun Lun relaxes as her twin panda cubs Mei Lun and Mei Huan sleep at her feet at the Atlanta Zoo in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. November 14, 2013. Lun Lun is pregnant with twins again, according to zoo officials. REUTERS/Tami Chappell/File Photo
Ivan, a shy 35-year-old endangered lowland gorilla, contemplates fatherhood as he peers at his breeding partner, 14-year-old Kinyani, after his first sexual encounter at Zoo Atlanta January 23. The zoo's breeding program has produced eight gorilla babies with three more expected.
William Linginfelter, SouthTrust Bank President and Chief Operating Officer, takes a close look at Mr. Bingle, an eight foot Albino alligator March 5 at Zoo Atlanta. Mr. Bingle is one of 18 Albino alligators known to exist in the world and is on loan to Zoo Atlanta from Audubon Park and Zoological Gardens in New Orleans. WHITE ALLIGATOR
ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 11: General view of at Zoo Atlanta on August 11, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Prince Williams/FilmMagic)
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1900: Chimpanzee, Atlanta zoo in United States - Laughing chimpanzee. (Photo by Francois LE DIASCORN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Two rare giant pandas, Yang Yang (L) and Lun Lun play together in their new home at the Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta, GA 18 November, 1999. The two pandas will make their home in Atlanta for the next 10 years. AFP PHOTO/ STEVE SCHAEFER (Photo credit should read STEVE SCHAEFER/AFP/Getty Images)
A pair of giant panda twins born to Lun Lun are pictured at Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta in this July 15, 2013 picture provided by Zoo Atlanta. A giant panda at the Atlanta zoo delivered an extra bundle of joy on Monday when she gave birth to twins, an apparent surprise to zoo officials who had been excitedly anticipating the birth of a single cub. REUTERS/Zoo Atlanta/Handout via Reuters (UNITED STATES - Tags: ANIMALS ENVIRONMENT SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) pets Victoria, a fifteen year old African elephant, at Zoo Atlanta on June 20. Gingrich celebrated his 55th birthday with a party with supporters at the zoo. tlc/Photo by Tami L. TLC/CM
Ivan, the 32-year-old shopping mall gorilla from Tacoma, Wa., gets his first look at the outside world in almost thirty years March 16 as Zoo Atlanta attendees admire Ivan from inside the African Rain Forest viewing enclosure in Atlanta, Ga. The 400 pound lowland gorilla has been in isolation for almost thirty years and will be introduced to other gorillas in the outdoor habitat for the first time in 32 years

Chantek, one of the oldest male orangutans in North American zoos, was born at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta. He was sent to live with anthropologist Lyn Miles at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for about nine years.

Chantek learned to clean his room, make and use tools and could direct a driving route from the university to a Dairy Queen restaurant, according to a 2014 PBS documentary, "The Ape Who Went to College."

Chantek was among a handful of primates who could communicate using American Sign Language, along with Koko, a gorilla, and Washoe, a female chimpanzee.

He was transferred to Zoo Atlanta in 1997 and frequently used sign language to communicate with keepers, the zoo said. But he was shy about signing with people he did not know and often used communication more typical of orangutans, such as vocalizations and hand gestures, it said.

Zoo Atlanta began a medical regimen in 2016 to treat Chantek's symptoms of heart disease. Cardiac disease is a leading cause of death among great apes such as orangutans in zoos.

Chantek was put on a low-sodium diet, and he was the first awake orangutan to undergo a voluntary echocardiogram to examine his heart's electrical rhythms.

Both Bornean and Sumatran species of orangutans are listed as critically endangered in the wild. The two species are facing sharp drops in numbers because of habitat loss, timber cutting and human encroachment, the zoo said.

(Writing and additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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