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  • Writer's pictureMason Edwards!

Heart, Hope, Heritage: UTC Professor Connects with Primates at Chattanooga Zoo

By Mason Edwards, Staff Writer for the University Echo

Lyn Miles holds a necklace Chantek the orangutan made. Friday, September 9, 2022. Oliver Lampley, Staff Photographer

It’s time to meet the teacher whose activities drew the eyes of the FBI, appeared in two television documentaries, and captured the curiosity of an entire college campus.

Reporters and researchers have thoroughly documented the story of Chantek– the first orangutan to be raised as a person–but they skip past the life of the person bold enough to raise him: H. Lyn Miles, Ph.D.

The world-renowned professor strolled through the temperate, shaded paths of the Chattanooga Zoo on Friday, Sept. 9. A few groups of people walked about, heading off to the giraffe exhibit or the reptiles–but not Miles. She walked straight to the outdoor primate enclosure: Gombe Forest.

The Chattanooga Zoo houses several chimpanzees in a walled and netted enclosure, decorated with natural-looking stone walls. Miles hiked to the plexiglass, where she found two chimpanzees grooming each other. She explained why and drew parallels between how humans interact with each other and how the primates interact.

“Look, there’s someone over there,” said Miles, referring to a Chimpanzee. 

Lyn Miles greets two chimpanzee with a "Chimp Greeting." Friday, September 9, 2022 Oliver Lampley, Staff Photographer

She tried to get their attention from afar, mimicking a primate greeting call, but the primates weren’t interested–yet. They moved to another side of the enclosure, and Miles followed.

There, Miles introduced herself to Sydney Spence, a zookeeper who was entertaining spectators while she fed the chimpanzees. As Spence’s show winded down, Miles greeted the alpha male with success, as the male greeted back. 

“I’ve never seen him interact with people like this before,” Spence said.

As Miles talked to Spence about Chantek and his jewelry, the alpha male grew jealous of the attention everyone gave to Miles. She noticed a slight change in his behavior as the alpha male made calls for attention, not to greet. Miles predicted he would charge soon, in a display of authority. 

Exactly how Miles predicted, the ape charged a tire, picked it up and slammed it against the ground, before ambling back to the chain-link fence. Miles stunned onlookers with her knowledge, and when they began asking Spence questions, she directed the questions to Miles. 

When not visiting primates, Miles teaches Anthropology at UTC. A decorated, distinguished member of the faculty, she has served as a professor for over forty years–and she started at UTC. She inspires everyone who meets her, including students and teaching assistants alike. 

James Brown, a teaching assistant studying education, taught with Miles for the Fall 2021 semester, but he continues to keep in touch with her.

“She listens to her students and is committed to working with them in a way that makes everyone feel important and valuable,” Brown wrote. “As a teaching assistant, she asked me for feedback on how she could be a better teacher, and she actually listened to a couple of suggestions…”

Miles began her undergraduate studies as a theater and communications major, but quickly changed majors after reading a book about teaching language to apes. 

“I was always drawn to deep questions,” said Miles. “Anthropology is so broad, with different cultures and different perspectives.” 

She considers herself an example of those different perspectives. She wears her heritage on her chest, evidenced by her various Native American necklaces. She proudly descends from First Nation Canadian Native Americans, including Abenaki, Blackfoot and Coast Salish, and she even adopted some of their worldviews. 

“These First Nations believed animals were persons of the nonhuman kind,” Miles said. “I internalized that.” 

For Miles, where she comes from is much more about who she comes from. Her family history inspired her, as she discussed the many ancestral adventurers in her family tree. Regarding a map, she can’t pinpoint one place of upbringing. 

“I’m bi-costal,” Miles answered. “I was born in New Haven, Connecticut, but I was raised in Laguna Beach, California, and then we went back to Connecticut.”

Yet, for over forty years now, Miles has taught at UTC– nearly 400 miles from the nearest coast.

“I was interviewed at Stanford University, and they wanted to hire me,” Miles said. “Except they had just had a number of students studying apes in Africa be abducted for ransom.”

Then, she answered a phone call late into the evening from a small, Southern school in East Tennessee. While she talked to them, she picked up her compact, paperback almanac. The almanac was so small, in fact, the dot from Chattanooga wasn’t that far from the coast. 

Students who talk to Miles can expect warm-wishes, heartfelt sympathy, and humorous anecdotes, including the story about the FBI. 

Only into her first year of teaching, “reprint requests” came from all over the globe asking for copies of her graduate research. Many nations did not have library access, and because the internet did not exist yet, their scientists mailed other professionals and asked for copies of their research. They came in so regularly, according to Miles, that the FBI knocked on the dean’s door. 

She was initially clueless as to why they interviewed her– until the reprint requests dawned on her. She ran to her office, and–picking up the papers from a shoebox–handed the FBI countless envelopes from the U.S.S.R. 

“They went, ‘these are all science requests?’” Miles chuckled. “I was a potential enemy of the state for a few minutes.” 

Rather impressed with her reputation abroad, Bert Bach, P.hD, offered to fund more of Miles’s research, which led to her adopting Chantek. According to Miles, she will always be grateful for Bach stepping up, taking a risk, and setting out to accomplish something unproven. Prior to Miles, no scientist team had ever communicated with an orangutan via sign language. 

“I wanted to investigate what it would feel like to communicate with a nonhuman, who could talk back to me, ask me questions, disagree with me, and even tell lies,” Miles elaborated. “Nobody thought it could be done.” 

After helping her in such a feat, Miles is immensely proud of the school system. She only wishes UTC memorialized Chantek in some form or fashion, not for any egotistical reason as she explains, but because UTC’s provisions for ground-breaking research should be celebrated. 

Chantek wears an orangutan-sized necklace he made of jade and rawhide at Zoo Atlanta. Contributed by Lyn Miles

“We were able to impact hundreds of students,” Miles said. “UTC was the only place in the world we could do that.”

Miles noted a recurring theme within her life– bridging the gap between divisions. She reached across the species gap, learning about Chantek as a person. Even her vehicle–a 2015 Prius–bridges the gap between fossil fuels and renewable energy. Now, she reaches across the generational gap with her students, inspiring them to achieve the impossible. 

“I appreciate the hopefulness of her sentiment,” said former student Mia Speller. “I thought the [documentary] was sick and… watched it after class one day.” 

Routinely, she tells her students Generation Z will be the generation to fix the cultural and societal issues of the day, no matter how impossible the tasks may seem. In her eyes, despite all the division between humans today, if a human can connect with an orangutan, there’s hope for humanity.

“I devoted my life to connecting with those who were really different from me,” said Miles.

For more information regarding Chantek, writer Shawn Ryan documented the orangutan’s mischief, personality, and achievements on the University of Tennessee System’s webpage, titled “Escape Artist.”

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