3 Things Writers Can Learn from Chantek, the Orangutan

Filed in Who Supports Your Writing Dreams? by on August 5, 2014 • views: 2901

orangutan 2I enjoyed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Great fun!
But that’s not what inspired this post.

It was actually a PBS special entitled, “The Ape Who Went to College.” In case you haven’t seen it, it told the story of Chantek, a baby orangutan raised as a human child on the University of Tennessee campus in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Watching the documentary, I was moved by Chantek’s story, and took away some key things I felt we can all learn from what he went through.

An Ape Raised as a Human

Chantek’s story was a little like Koko’s, the gorilla who learned sign language, but more poignant, since Chantek was even more assimilated into a human life. In addition to teaching him sign language, his caretakers dressed him in human clothes, sent him to kindergarten, and even taught him how to use “money” (silver washers) to get the things he wanted, like soda pop and ice cream.

Chantek learned quickly, and could soon hold a conversation, play jokes, and invent his own words to communicate what he wanted to say. (He called himself an “orangutan-person.”) He learned to do clean-up tasks and other chores in exchange for money, which he would then use to “buy” a car trip to the fast food restaurant where he could get his sweet treats.

He even knew how to ask for a ride in the car, and that his caretaker needed the key to start the engine. The other students soon accepted him as part of campus life, and he enjoyed a number of years with all the love and attention any human child might enjoy.

The problems started when Chantek entered his adolescent years, and started growing bigger, stronger, and more like an adult orangutan. His caretakers hadn’t adequately prepared for his growth or his intelligence, and he was soon outwitting all their efforts to keep him confined. One day there were reports that he had “attacked” a young woman on campus. The woman was unhurt, as I recall from the documentary, but the University had to respond, particularly since the project had not yet found a way to successfully keep Chantek from getting out.

Jailed for Growing Up

At eight years old, without warning or explanation, Chantek was tranquilized and moved to the Yerkes Primate Centre in Atlanta, a research lab, where he was imprisoned in a small cage. His caretakers weren’t allowed to see him for weeks. When Dr. Lyn Miles, the one who had been with him since he was a baby, was finally allowed in, she found the orangutan listless and broken-hearted—a completely different creature from the one she had known.

According to Daily Mail:

“Chantek signed back a plea, ‘Mother Lyn, get the car, go home.’ Fighting back tears, Dr Miles asked if he was ill. ‘Hurt,’ said Chantek. She asked him where it hurt: ‘Feelings,’ he replied.”

Chantek was left to languish in that cage for two years. After that, he was moved to the Atlanta Zoo, where he again lived in a cage. He showed signs of depression and ballooned to 500 pounds, considered significantly overweight for an orangutan his age.

It wasn’t until 11 years after he was taken from the university that he was moved to a larger enclosure with trees, and put on a diet to bring his weight under control. He now lives in the same enclosure with other orangutans, but is no longer encouraged to sign or communicate with humans—his attempts are ignored. The treats he loved and still asks for are forbidden. The zookeepers feel that a simple life with others of his own kind is a better life for him, even though Chantek refers to the other orangutans as “orange dogs.”

Dr. Miles remains the only connection he has to his childhood. Remarkably enough, he still remembers some signs and still “talks” to her when she goes to visit him.

Misguided Charity

To me, this was a heartbreaking story. It reminded me of what I thought were the misguided attempts to return Keiko, the killer whale featured in the Free Willy movies, to the wild in the 1990s.

I saw Keiko while he was at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. He was over 20 years old then, and it was plain he loved humans. He’d been raised around them since he was two. While I was there, he rested for a short time, and then grabbed his ball—without any encouragement from his trainers—and started playing with it, just to please the crowd. You could really tell he was showing off for us. To take a creature that has been so conditioned to a domestic life and attempt to return it to the wild—of which it knows nothing—seemed cruel to me.

Keiko was flown to a town in Iceland in 1998, underwent training, and finally left with wild whales in August 2002. Three weeks later he was in a Norwegian fjord allowing children to ride on his back. He ultimately failed to integrate with the other whales and died in 2003.

Chantek is still alive, but when you watch the documentary and see the difference between what he was like in his early years and how he is now, you can’t help but feel that something has been lost.

What We Can Learn

If you haven’t seen the documentary, you can find it online here. After it was over, I couldn’t help but draw some parallels between Chantek’s story and that of most writers and other creatives.

1. We need stimulation and support.

When you see the difference between Chantek as a “child,” when he’s surrounded by people who are stimulating and teaching him, and Chantek as an adult, when he’s left to languish in a large enclosure with other orangutans, it’s like watching two different creatures. The young Chantek is energetic, engaged, and eager to learn. The older Chantek seems listless, tired, and apathetic.

We writers can be the same, particularly if we surround ourselves with the wrong people. We need consistent support and stimulation. We need to be learning about our craft on a regular basis. We need to be around good teachers, and those who support our dreams. For most of us to thrive, this really isn’t a negotiable thing.

If you feel like your writing dreams are stalling, your work-in-progress is crap, or you just don’t have the energy to keep going, you probably need stimulation and support. Go to a conference. Get together with a writer’s group. Find a mentor. Read a writing book you can learn from. You simply can’t do it all alone.

2. It’s never too late.

At the end of the documentary, when Chantek signs back to Dr. Miles, it’s clear that he remembers the essence of what he learned. He’s forgotten how to sign some words, but he recognizes Dr. Miles, calls her by name, and still asks her for ice cream, even though he hasn’t been allowed to have it for over ten years. He also still signs “I love you” to her.

I think as writers and creative people, we’re the same way. Life can be complicated. Sometimes it draws us away from our passions, but they never completely disappear.

People ask if it’s too late to be a writer. I thought of these people when I saw this scene. If things ever changed to where Chantek could again have more interaction with humans, I have no doubt he would soon be signing at the same level (or higher) as he did when he was a youngster. Writers and other creative people can be assured of the same—the spark is always there, just waiting to be developed.

3. We have an impact.

If you watch the documentary, you’ll find that while humans had a definite impact on Chantek’s life, Chantek—as a humble ape—had an even greater impact on the humans around him. Dr. Miles continues to visit him to this day, and his other trainers, who were also interviewed for the show, were moved to tears remembering their role in his upbringing.

Since the documentary aired in January 2014, I’m sure Chantek has impacted even more people (including me). This made me think about how often writers have talked about self-doubt in the writer features on this site.

Most of us wonder at one time or another if all the time and effort we’re putting into our projects will be worth it, especially if we don’t get published, or our books don’t sell, or few (if any) people recognize what we’re doing.

I think we have to trust that as long as we produce the work, it will have an impact, often in a way we wouldn’t normally expect. Of course, there are no guarantees. We may not be published. We may not be bestsellers. Our families may not even read our books after they’re published. But somewhere, somehow, our work will have an impact.

What If You’re the Only One Who Cares?

What if the only one affected by your work is you? I like this answer from Swati Ramnath:

You might ask yourself—‘What if the book that I am working on never gets picked up by the readers?’ or ‘What if my book never gets published? Are those hours, days and years spent writing then an utter waste of time? Is publishing success the only reward of writing?’

I asked myself these questions, and the answer was a resounding ‘No.’

So, even if our books never get published, even if our stories never see the light of day, we must still write; because writing is rewarding us in countless other ways that we often fail to acknowledge.”

 And this from Virginia Woolf:

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.”

And finally, this from American basketball player and coach, John Wooden:

“Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”


Chantek’s story isn’t over. There may yet be future developments that would allow him more freedom, and allow us to learn more from him. He’s only 36 years old now, and the average lifespan of an orangutan in captivity is about 50 years. Dr. Miles has a vision for a new Primate Cultural Center that would allow so-called “encultrated” great apes like Chantek to live in comfortable surroundings and make decisions about their daily lives.

For more information, please see this beautiful article about a visit with Chantek by Susanne Antonetta, or the Chantek Foundation.

Did you see this documentary on Chantek? Are you getting the support you need for your dreams? Please share your thoughts.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Mochan says:

    At the time to this writing Chantek would have been 35 or 36, not 22.

    Great article, I have to keep reminding myself that what I do matters.

  2. Chere says:

    Such a sad story! I hope he eventually gets to have a happier life. But the take-away points for writers were great! It is never too late, and our work will have an impact, on us at the very least.

    • Colleen says:

      Hi, Chere. I thought so, too. Sad to see such an advanced creature just sort of wasting away. I hope something will change for him. Either way, his story has touched a lot of people. Thanks so much for your input! :O)