Speaking Orangutan

“I fly to speak with an orangutan named Chantek. He lives in a habitat on the grounds of Zoo Atlanta in Georgia, where he was placed after a stint at Yerkes Primate Center and before that, life in the home of his ‘cross foster-mother,’ as anthropologist Lyn Miles calls herself. She raised him as a signing infant from the age of nine months, rearing him as much as possible as a human child.

When our van pulls up to Chantek’s habitat he swings out onto one of its inside branches and asks for bottled water, which he calls ‘car water,’ since Lyn usually has some in her car. He’s particular about bottled waters, preferring Naya. Chantek appears as harmlessly shaggy as a Sesame Street figure, the color of a November pumpkin, the size of an enormous easy chair. Because of his strength, though, we’re not allowed into his habitat, so he kisses and strokes Lyn through the bars.

I know very little sign, so Lyn asks Chantek to teach me some. Chantek has an active vocabulary of about three hundred words and a passive vocabulary of a thousand or more, which he can comprehend either by speech or by sign. We start with the basics.

Teach her apple, says Lyn.

Chantek shows me apple, brushing his cheek. I mimic him, and Good, he signs, then asks Lyn what’s wrong with her hand, which has a scratch on the knuckle.

I did it cleaning, she tells him, and he makes a grimace of sympathy, then asks to touch and kiss it.” —From “Language Garden,” by Susanne Antonetta, published in the March/April 2005 issue of Orion.

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