A statue for Chantek? A memorial considered for the orangutan who learned to sign at UTC

A statue for Chantek? A memorial considered for the orangutan who learned to sign at UTC

February 7th, 2015 by Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

Photo Courtesy of Dr. Lyn H. Miles The infant Chantek

Photo Courtesy of Dr. Lyn H. Miles The infant...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Chantek the orangutan lives in an outdoor enclosure at Zoo Atlanta where he can swing from branch to branch.

But he really got around during the eight years he stayed at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Chantek went to Lake Winnepesaukah Amusement Park, rode the elevator to visit UTC benefactor Scotty Probasco in the 20-story SunTrust building downtown -- even sat in the audience and watched the animals perform when the circus came to UTC's McKenzie Arena.

"You'd see students walking to class, and you'd see Chantek walking to class, too," said Richard Brown, UTC's executive vice chancellor of finance and operations. "He was really part of the campus."

Now there's talk of putting a statue of Chantek on campus.

A image of Chantek from the "Chantek Report"---photogapher unknown.

A image of Chantek from the "Chantek Report"---photogapher...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Chantek came to UTC in 1979 as a 9-month-old baby for a groundbreaking experiment led by anthropology professor Dr. H. Lyn Miles.

Chantek learned sign language and was treated like a human child by Miles, researcher Ann Southcombe and others, including student volunteers, who cared for the orangutan. He lived in a trailer on campus surrounded by a chain-link fence.

"It's the only place in the world where an orangutan was raised to learn sign language," Miles said. "We should demarcate it in some way."

Chantek developed the vocabulary of a 7- to 8-year-old child, Miles said. He came up with his own words, including "tomato toothpaste" for the ketchup that he loved on cheeseburgers.

But in 1986, Chantek was whisked back to Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta after he escaped from his enclosure and frightened a UTC student. He spent 11 years at Yerkes -- including confinement inside a 5-by-5 foot cage, where he became depressed and his weight doubled -- before moving in with other orangutans at Zoo Atlanta.

Chantek is now in his late 30s and has a mate. But he still sees himself as half human, Miles said, and calls the zoo's other orangutans "orange dogs."

Miles got the statue idea during the filming of an hour-long Animal Planet documentary about Chantek, "The Ape Who Went to College," which aired in July on local public television station WTCI and Georgia Public Broadcasting.

The documentary painted a heartbreaking picture of Chantek's plight as a highly intelligent great ape who doesn't really have a place among orangutans or in the human world.

"One of the film crews that came through, they wanted to film the [Chantek] statue, and we were kind of embarrassed [not to have one]," she said.

Miles thinks a local sculptor might be interested. Or UTC's art department may want to help come up with a design, she said.

The statue idea is still just that -- an idea.

Miles said several students may approach student government with a request for funding.

"I think there is support on campus," she said. "It's a significant legacy."

Miles' department head, Pamela Ashmore, likes the idea of a Chantek statue. Ashmore, co-author of the textbook, "The Life of Primates," came to UTC in 2012 to lead the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Geography.

"UTC had a very unique experience," Ashmore said of Chantek's stay on campus. "It's not going to happen in today's world."

Brown, who was UTC's public safety director during Chantek's time in Chattanooga, also likes the idea of a Chantek statue -- though he said UTC doesn't have money set aside for one.

"It'd be kind of neat to have a sculpture," Brown said, adding, "Someone would have to fundraise for that."

While Chantek once roamed UTC's campus and had his photo in the yearbook annually, his name didn't ring a bell for several students interviewed this week, including Amy Beam, a senior communications major.

Nonetheless she liked the idea of a Chantek statue.

"There's not a lot of art on campus," Beam said. "I think if they are going to do it, they should commission art students to come up with something."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomar zu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.