There was a moment early on in Dr Lyn Miles’ incredible relationship with baby ape Chantek when she realised there was something very special about him. As she snuggled down to sleep with the infant orangutan in the bed they shared for the first four years of his life she noticed him paying closer attention than usual to the bedtime story on the radio.
“It was a story about a cat and I realised that he was following the storyline because the cat would meow and he would make a cat sign. Then I would ask him to ‘sign cat’ and ‘sign car’ and he did. It proved that not only could he understand sounds and words but he could volunteer a response.”
It was a triumphant moment for the American anthropologist who had made Chantek the subject of an extraordinary experiment – to prove that the higher apes could, with training, not just talk to us using sign language but respond to questions with signed answers.
It was a long road travelled for Dr Miles, a professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee, and it had a heartbreaking outcome. But the journey was filled with wonder and scientific discovery.
It started in 1978, when she adopted the then six-month-old Chantek from an American research centre with the purpose of raising him as a human child. If it sounds ethically question- able now, it was considered ground-breaking in the 1970s. “It’s hard to teach language to an animal that you treat in a very distant way, so you have to raise it as if it were a child,” says Miles.
This meant Chantek had his own fully equipped trailer home on the Chattanooga campus, complete with kitchen, living room, bathroom, and two bedrooms. “He had toys, he learnt to prepare his breakfast in the morning, he had human doctors, not vets. He sat in restaurants and would even help drive the car. So he had a full human experience.”
He also had the 24-hour support of Miles – a maternal bond that extended to bedtime. “He would listen to stories on the radio or play children’s music and he would just kind of cuddle and fall asleep. And that was for the first three or four years, every single night. Either with myself or one of the students who helped care for him.”
Some might suggest that Chantek was a child substitute for Miles “I don’t think you can say that. I raised my brother as my son, and have two other brothers, so I have a rich family life. Chantek did enrich my life just as a human child would have, but at the same time, as a scientist he taught me an awful lot.”
The benefits were clearly reciprocal. By the time he was five years old Chantek had learnt up to 150 signs and understood a range of spoken English. He was also capable of many other practical acts. He understood the purpose of money – offering up coin-substitute washers when requesting food. But how could she be sure the signs were not just random gestures?
“We were very careful to take a videotape sample of Chantek’s language each week and we had American Sign Language signers who would translate the sign so we did have a reliability check. We also had groups of hearing-impaired schoolchildren who would visit Chantek and they would get so excited seeing him speaking their language.”
But then, in 1985, came an attack on a student – Miles disputes its severity – and in 1986 Chantek was sent back to the research centre where he had been born and confined to much smaller quarters. His weight ballooned and depression set in.
Miles was heartbroken. “It was emotionally devastating, both in terms of my scientific results and also personally, as his foster mum, it pained me. It seemed they were trying to ‘put the animal back’ into Chantek.”
Today, the 36-year-old ape lives in relative comfort as one of a group of orangutans in Atlanta Zoo. Miles’ visits to the zoo have been restricted, and the signing that Chantek was once so proficient at is disappearing. “I don’t think they understand what a real treasure he is,” she says. “There is a pervading notion in viewing Chantek as an animal, and I think the key is to see that he is really an animal- person. That’s how he sees himself. He calls other orangutans ‘orange dogs’ and he calls himself ‘orangutan-person’.”