Chantek, the orangutan dies at 39
Zoo Atlanta photo shows Chantek the orangutan after the passing of the male orangutan who was among the first apes to learn sign language, in this photo released on social media in Atlanta, Georgia - File Photo Zoo Atlanta/Handout via REUTERS

Chantek, a male orangutan who was one of the first apes who could communicate using American Sign Language, died on Monday (7 August) in Atlanta, Georgia.

The 39-year-old orangutan, could clean his room, make and use tools and memorise the way to a fast-food restaurant, Zoo Atlanta said.

Chantek, one of the oldest male orangutans in North American zoos, lived with anthropologist Lyn Miles at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for about nine years. He spent his later years in Zoo Atlanta.

"Chantek will be deeply missed by his family here at Zoo Atlanta. He had such a unique and engaging personality and special ways of relating to and communicating with those who knew him best," Hayley Murphy, vice president of the zoo's animal divisions said.

Zoo Atlanta had begun a medical treatment to treat Chantek's symptoms of heart disease in 2016. Cardiac disease is known to be a leading cause of death among great apes such as orangutans in zoos.

Chantek was the first awake orangutan to undergo a voluntary echocardiogram to examine his heart's electrical rhythms, Reuters reports. He was also put on a low sodium diet.

The Ape Who Went to College

Chantek was born at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta. According to a 2014 PBS documentary, "The Ape Who Went to College," the orangutan had learned to clean his room, make and use tools and could even direct a driving route from the university to a Dairy Queen restaurant.

Zoo Atlanta said that Chantek used sign language to communicate with keepers but "he was shy about signing with individuals he did not know and often chose forms of communication which are more typical of orangutans, such as vocalisations and unique hand gestures".