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Orangutan's Talk Not Just Monkey Business


ATLANTA — Chantek, a giant ball of orange fur, puts a fist to his chin--sign language for orange.

"Give me the cup, Chantek. Then I'll give you an orange," trainer Lyn Miles signs back, motioning to the plastic juice cup the 450-pound orangutan has nabbed from her. He repeats the sign for the orange, again without success, then turns away.

"That's the 'No way, lady,' response," said Carol Flammer of Zoo Atlanta.

Chantek is the latest, possibly most fascinating addition to the zoo's primate group. Raised like a human child, he knows at least 150 words in American Sign Language.

Chantek isn't merely aping what he sees. Miles believes he understands and uses the language just as people do, a talent the zoo hopes to eventually share with the world.

"What is really spectacular is that Chantek is actually using the symbols he's learned as his language," she said. "He can talk about places he doesn't see. He can talk about things that aren't present. I can ask him to sign better and he will."

Zoo officials have big plans for Chantek. Director Terry Maple and Miles envision a $1-million amphitheater where children could interact with Chantek through glass, but not in a way that would make him a performing seal. "I truly think this will be the most exciting exhibit in the world," Miles said.

Chantek, who zoo officials say thinks like a 4-year-old human, is one of a handful of signing primates throughout the country. Washoe, the 32-year-old female chimp who is one of the most famous, lives in Washington. Koko, a signing gorilla, lives in California.

Chantek, who is nearing age 20, was born at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta and was sent to live in a trailer with Miles at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for about nine years.

Miles, an anthropologist, raised Chantek as if he were her own child. She fed him at 4 a.m. and even toilet trained him. As he grew up, Chantek learned to clean his room and was given an allowance, which he spent for treats such as car rides and trips to fast-food joints.

Chantek proved a quick learner. He memorized the way to McDonald's, made shadow puppets on the wall, threw tantrums and even told about three lies a week, she said.

"He'd tell me he had to go to the bathroom and then go in there just to play with the knobs on the toilet," Miles said.

Chantek came back to Yerkes in 1986 and Miles followed, continuing her research until 1989. Yerkes gave him to the zoo in October.

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