In 1978, anthropology grad student Lyn Miles began working with an orangutan named Chantek on the University of Tennessee's Chattanooga campus, raising him as if he were a human child and teaching him to communicate via sign language. Their story is the subject of "The Ape Who Went to College," the second episode in PBS's four-part series "My Wild Affair," which premieres July 23 as part of the summer Think Wednesdays block of science and nature programming. Miles reflects on the project and her unique relationship with her simian charge in this candid conversation.

MNN: When you began this experiment with Chantek, did you know what you were getting into?

Lyn Miles: I did in a sense, since I had already trained in my graduate studies with the famous signing chimpanzee Washoe as well as other chimpanzees: Ally, Booee, Bruno, etc. who were a part of her group. But to create my own project, with its own unique direction, took some real thinking. As an anthropologist, I saw myself as creating a bridge to the mind of another species, much like Margaret Mead going to the South Pacific in the 1930s, or an anthropologist of the future studying extraterrestrial culture on another planet. I decided to focus on culture as well as language, and also taught Chantek arts and crafts, and to make stone tools and jewelry. In terms of language, I was interested in how Chantek learned or created meanings, how he functionally used the words he had, and how he explored the amazing adventure of being raised in a human society. Most importantly, I wanted to listen when Chantek "talked."

Chantek at 9 months oldDid you think it would take over your life or that you would become so attached to him?

I had become very attached to a chimpanzee, Booee, who was gentle, positive and enthusiastic and made my research a delight. His teacher Roger Fouts said, "Booee would sell his soul for a raisin!" So I knew to raise an orangutan for decades as my cross-foster son would mean even more engagement — and responsibility. I observed Chantek from just a few months of age. At first I wore a fur vest and hat to simulate orangutan hair for him to hang onto, and I slept with him at night until he was old enough for his own room. I read everything about orangutans so I would be prepared. I didn't think of it taking over my life; it was my life. 

How do you view it in retrospect? What were the most rewarding things about it?

It felt like a great adventure to cross species boundaries this way, like the first human to adopt a wolf pup or like a science-fiction story where a scientist finds herself on a strange planet and feels the presence of another being or essence, maybe a sentient intelligent being, and just has to feel her way to make contact. Knowing a non-human intelligence separated from me by millions of years of evolution, so intimately, and — this is key — as a 'person' was most rewarding. We see 'exhibits' of animals in the zoo for maybe five minutes as we pass with our children, gorillas here … now onto the giraffes! They inform us and remind us of conservation, but they are "the other" — furry objects on a hillside for our education/entertainment — and then back to the concrete and bars of the holding areas. I got to know Chantek as a person. I felt I was the luckiest person in the world. I still do.

Do you have any regrets or would you have done anything differently?

I wish we could have found better quarters for Chantek. My vision is a "great ape culture center" — maybe some of your readers can help me make that a reality? It would be a sanctuary where apes and other intelligent animals (dolphins, pigs, parrots, elephants, etc.) would explore their own cultures as well as learn aspects of ours. Apes could make their own natural stick tools and then turn and play tic tac toe on a computer with a child in Cambodia. They could make fire, cook food, string necklaces, pound stone tools — or just make a nest in the trees and relax. It would all be about choice and agency and personhood. Who knows where it would lead … maybe to the zoos of the 22nd century? (Miles welcomes emails from readers. Contact her at

What did you take away from the experience and, what were the implications for science?

We discovered that not only chimps were highly intelligent, [but that] intelligence, creativity, culture, and empathy extended back at least 12-13 years since our separation from orangutans. Chantek also showed that he could comprehend spoken English, extend the meanings of his signs in creative ways (he once called the hair on a student’s leg a "beard" and he calls catsup "tomato toothpaste"), make material culture like Oldowan choppers and necklaces, and go through the same stages that children do in learning to point or make reference. We are still learning from Chantek, even today.

Why is there no longer an impetus to teach apes language? Are you disappointed that there isn't?

The pendulum has swung back and forth every other decade or so, as a new generation discovers "animal language." When I was a student at Yale and University of Connecticut, it was considered very cutting edge and rather risky in career terms to teach language to a non-human. One famous anthropologist even told me I would be "wasting my time" with an orangutan who would just "peripheralize" and never communicate. Boy, am I glad I didn't listen to him. But by the next decade, ape language research David Premack was complaining that he would give a talk about his cutting edge research and everyone just said, "Oh, we know apes can talk … there's one who has a pet kitten," referring to the signing gorilla, Koko.

At first scientists were skeptical, then as evidence that apes could learn rudimentary language came in, they began to play what I called "Linguistic 'Yes…But'" as they tried to define human language as still unique to our species. There were some problems with these pioneering studies, and let's face it, they require huge investment and commitment, and these are struggling economic times. But, the impetus will return … and in a big way, I hope. I'm not disappointed because I think we are in the process of deeply learning that humans are a part of nature in many more ways than we imagined. Chantek is helping us to do that.

Do you think Chantek benefited from learning language? Was he happier or did it complicate things?

Chantek is the ape who knows magic — the magic and power of language. He could not only label his world, he could see how it is interconnected, e.g., how to bake a cake, make something float, short out his electric fence, or bargain and barter with money. He developed empathy, not only for me when he gave me a covering for my head in a thunderstorm, but for other orangutans when he helped care for a female who was ill and got her breathing treatments. It complicated things for him — to be sent to a zoo, however well-maintained, after living freely in our society and using his language so effectively. It also changed his self-concept — he called himself "orangutan person." Now when I see him, he asks to "go home," "eat cheese-meat-breads" (hamburgers), and "make tools." In some ways, he is a prisoner of the artificial boundary we have between ourselves and other animals.

Where is he now and how old is he? Do you still visit him? How would you characterize your relationship?

Chantek calls me "mother Lyn." He lives at a zoo in the Southeast, and he is in his thirties. I visit him regularly as a member of the zoo, not as a scientist because after promising a million dollar language and cognition laboratory, the zoo now has discouraged my research. I hope this changes in the future as people come to see that Chantek is an ambassador to both our species and his. Another science-fiction story, "Flowers for Algernon," was about a developmentally-delayed man who was given a new drug that made him intelligent and then a brilliant genius — only to wear off and then return him slowly back to his original state. I don't want that to happen to Chantek.

Are you still teaching at the University of Tennessee? Do you talk about Chantek?

I am teaching at the University of Tennessee — the Chattanooga campus near the site of the Scopes Monkey Trial where evolution and our connectedness to the great apes and nature was challenged about a century ago. I teach an exciting course, ANTH 1000 Mysteries of the Human Journey, where we explore lots of puzzles of our past such as Neanderthals, Big Foot, Nazca lines, the Denisovans, why some cultures circumcise and others have up to eight genders — and, of course, Chantek! In upper-level courses about primate behavior and ape language, students analyze Chantek language data and visit him with me to see him sign firsthand.

What do you hope viewers learn and take away from the  documentary?

The film raises the issue of our connectedness with the animals we love and learn from, whether that be through scientific research, having a pet, or an unusual cross-fostering situation like Chantek. Some will come away believing we should never create a bridge of language and culture between us and another species. But I think most will see the magic and the mystery of exploring the nonhuman mind, feel the passion for conserving this most remarkable species, and understand the deep need for creating a culture and language-based living situation for the most intelligent orangutan in the world, Chantek.

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