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Update on Chantek the orangutan
Friday, September 23, 2016

The Zoo Atlanta Veterinary Team is launching a regimen of progressive therapy for Chantek, a 38-year-old male orangutan, to mitigate symptoms of progressing heart disease. Chantek, who has lived at Zoo Atlanta since 1997, is one of the Zoo’s senior great apes and is the second-oldest of the Zoo’s orangutans, which are considered geriatric after the age of about 35. His condition is considered guarded as the team begins a new program of treatment and continues close monitoring. 

Thanks to the ongoing successes of the Zoo’s positive reinforcement training program, Chantek participated in the world’s first voluntary electrocardiogram (EKG) ever performed with an awake orangutan. This procedure monitors the heart’s electrical rhythms and was used to help in the diagnosis of Chantek’s heart disease. Like other orangutans at Zoo Atlanta, Chantek also participates in voluntary cardiac ultrasounds, blood pressure readings and blood draws, all of which are valuable means of monitoring his condition. As is often the case for human cardiac patients, Chantek is also on a healthy, low-sodium diet. 

Cardiac disease (CVD) is a primary cause of mortality among great apes in zoological populations. The Great Ape Heart Project (greatapeheartproject.org) based at Zoo Atlanta is the first coordinated clinical approach to targeting and treating CVD in all four non-human great ape taxa: gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos. Of the four taxa, orangutan cardiac conditions are the least understood. Chantek’s case was recently reviewed by Great Ape Heart Project subject matter experts, including human cardiologists, from around the U.S. 

“Zoo Atlanta is fortunate to have such a dedicated animal care team and to be the base for the Great Ape Heart Project, all of which have made it possible to diagnose Chantek and develop a treatment and monitoring plan through positive reinforcement training. Monitoring for cardiac disease through the use of voluntary positive reinforcement training is only possible due to the close relationship that exists between Chantek and his care team. In fact, this has helped greatly in detecting the progression of Chantek’s cardiac condition,” said Hayley Murphy, DVM, Vice President of Animal Divisions and Director of the Great Ape Heart Project. “Our primary goal for Chantek is to make sure he is comfortable, has a great quality of life, and provide him with the best medical care available.” 

Zoo Atlanta was chosen to lead the Great Ape Heart Project as part of a 2010 National Leadership Planning Grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and the project received its first IMLS National Leadership Grant for Museums in 2012, followed by a second National Leadership Grant for Museums Award in 2015. 

Chantek is well-known for his knowledge of American Sign Language (ASL), learned prior to his arrival at Zoo Atlanta 19 years ago. He continues to use sign language regularly with his care team, although he often also chooses other modes of communication which are more typical for orangutans. His group at Zoo Atlanta includes adult female Madu, 33; infant female Keju, 1; and juvenile males Remy, 5, and Dumadi, 9. 

Zoo Atlanta is home to North America’s largest zoological population of great apes, including 21 gorillas and 12 orangutans. All four great ape taxa are endangered or critically endangered. Both Bornean orangutans and Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered in the wild, and both species are experiencing dramatic population declines as a result of habitat loss, overharvesting of timber for palm oil plantations, and human encroachment. Experts predict that Sumatran orangutans could be extinct within 10 years without targeted conservation efforts.