How Chantek Lost 250 Pounds

The orangutan Chantek was fat. Really fat.

Raised in a human setting at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Chantek was taught sign language and developed a vocabulary of over 150 words. His favorite sign language symbols were “food-eat” and “drink.”

He ballooned to over five hundred pounds, about three times the weight of a wild orangutan. So he was put on a strict diet.

During this time, he rarely used any sign language symbols except “candy.” When he was given crayons to draw with, he ate them. When he got a chance, he escaped. He was found next to a tipped-over 55-gallon barrel of food.

He was returned to his cage and entered a pretty dark depression, signing repeatedly for his caretakers to get car keys and to take him home. Finally, he was moved to Zoo Atlanta where he had several acres to roam.

In this larger domain, Chantek walked to get his food, he swung from trees, and because orangutans are territorial, he spent much of his time patrolling the perimeter of his turf. He wasn’t on a diet— because of his new surroundings, Chantek lost some 250 pounds.

In their book ‘Mean Genes’, Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan talk about Chantek in a chapter about how things like weight gain and laziness are not products of low willpower but “zoo-like environments.”

Sleepy lions will sprint if there is a gazelle to be chased or a hyena to attack,” they analogise. “If we can set up the appropriate situations, we can similarly shed the cloak of laziness.

Instead of relying on ambiguous concepts of willpower to stick to your diet and exercise routine, focus on designing your environment in alignment with your goals.

Results will be inevitable.

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