About 35 years ago some professors at UT-Chattanooga were working with a pretty big monkey, an orangutan named Chantek, with the notion they could teach the primate to talk. It even made Walter Cronkite’s news. The claim was that in the nine years the monkey spent at UTC it learned one hundred and 50 words in sign language and I know that to be a total lie. The whole thing was a hoax.
I regret to report Chantek, at age 39, croaked at the Atlanta zoo on Monday. But now that all of the principal parties are dead, let me enlighten you once and for all with the truth. In 2014 a documentary was made on “The Ape Who Went To College” and, as one with inside knowledge, I can tell you the monkey was trained just as you can a dog or a horse. Give me nine years and I don’t need a white coat to teach an animal some pretty amazing tricks if I work with it every day.
Back in the 1980s, the UTC professors would call the media all the time with the revelation Chantek had just used sign language to ask for a banana, or whatever. At the same time, one of my closest friends was the late Walter “Oogie” Martin, surely among the greatest veterinarians ever produced at Auburn. Oogie knew more about animals than the Biblical Noah.
Oogie headed the Auburn Alumni Council several times, was on the university board of directors and was legendary in the school’s acclaimed vet school. Once he ran a cow off his front porch with a broom when he was naked (not the cow) during his honeymoon. He also tended to my dogs, called me often to talk Auburn football, and was one of the funniest men alive. The first time I asked him if mankind could teach a mammal to talk, Oogie told me I ought to be embarrassed for asking such a question.
“They will respond to voice commands but they ain’t got a dictionary. They hear a certain sound and they are trained to respond. A horse hears ‘Whoa’ and will stop but don’t ever expect one to spell it” he would laugh over his glass of beer. “Teaching an ape sign language is the mark of a fool. God made humans and He made animals. That is the only thing the two species have in common." (Oogie didn’t cotton much to evolution.)
At the time Oogie was a partner in the beloved Byles & Martin Clinic on 23rd Street and had a well-earned reputation. It was greatly enhanced one day when the UTC Monkey Department made an urgent call that Chantek was experiencing a serious mental attack. “Come quick, Dr. Martin, our primate is out of control!”
So Oogie drives to the Monkey Department and Chantek has a vice-like grip on some shrieking woman’s bosom. “The monkey had no idea what it was doing but adored the woman’s reaction … The monkey was acting wild because it was something to do that was a lot more fun than watching hours of repetitious hand signals,” he told a crowd of us out by his swimming pool.
“So I thought I would have some fun, too. I grabbed the monkey, trying to squeeze the very life out of it. Chantek immediately got still and I told the crowd that was watching I needed some time alone with ‘the patient’ to see what I could do. They all nodded and left the room and that’s when I swatted that monkey about as hard as I could across the room. I gave that monkey the first whipping it ever had.
“An animal will respond to discipline. About 15 minutes later, I invited the professors and the graduate students back in and Chantek was standing at attention, was he ever,” I can remember Oogie laughing. “I sat in a chair and said, ‘Chantek, come here’ and that orangutan responded instantly. I stuck out my hand and he shook it immediately.
“The professors were absolutely amazed. I mean, they could never get over it. What’s true is I told them I had to hypnotize Chantek,” the wonderful Oogie said, “I just didn’t add the next two words … ‘with fear.’”
UTC immediately named Oogie as Chantek’s permanent veterinarian and, from that point on, the orangutan would jerk to attention at the mere sight of Dr. Martin. The UTC Behavior Specialists wanted to watch Oogie hypnotize Chantek but, “I told ‘em that can’t happen … you might get hypnotized too or Chantek would get confused over who was the vet.”
Oogie loved to mess with those professors, telling them the length of hypnosis “depended on the ape’s frontal lobe.” Oogie knew some sign language and when he would ‘sign’ with Chantek, the ape made a face like a squirrel trying to whistle. “Trust me, this is total foolishness.”
So the good news is, RIP Chantek. The bad news, old monk, is that Oogie Martin’s in heaven too, and you are fixing to get hypnotized anew.
About the same time back in the ‘80s, there was a stripper bar down near the Choo Choo called ‘The Classic Cat’ and one night around 2 a.m., Oogie got an emergency call. It seems that the python the famous Lucretia used in her ‘Exotic Snake Dance” smelled some blood – somebody had cut their hand slicing limes – on a bar rag and swallowed it.
Now the reptile was acting funny so Oogie got out of bed and performed emergency surgery, saving the famous Lucretia’s “Erotic Snake Dance.” (She called the python “Jimmy.”) From that moment on Oogie was the official veterinarian at what those in the know called ‘The Cat.’ As fate would have it, several months later a dancer named “Charlene the Magician” – she had a disappearing act -- was coming back from doing a gig in Florida when she rescued a huge weimeraner at a truck stop.
No way could Charlene keep the 100-pound dog in her East Brainerd condo so she called Oogie, who in turn called me and asked if I needed a huge watch-dog for our farm. I said I would take it and would pick the dog up later that morning.
Unbeknownst to me, Oogie had arranged to have Charlene open the knock at the door totally naked. Unbeknownst to Oogie, I had a full schedule and flipped my keys to a couple of high schoolers who were working in the sports department that summer, telling then to go get “a puppy” and take it to our farm.
I have never learned if it was the 100-pound dog or the totally naked woman who answered the door that had the biggest affect on them but I do remember this: neither spoke for the next three days. Not a word.