Forget humans, it is the members of the ape world now who are in love with Apple’s iPad. A program still in its infancy at the Milwaukee County Zoo is introducing orangutans to the world of the iPad and two of the apes have already become glued to the smart device.
Milwaukee’s iPad enrichment program is a first time attempt by any zoo to include an iPad to engage and keep an animal busy. The zoo plans to take the program to all parts of the country and is already getting good feedback.
Two of the zoo’s Orangutans MJ and Mahal have a weekly session with the iPad when they enjoy playing games, watching videos and even using their favorite apps. But they have still not been given free reign as the keepers fear the small device may be too delicate for them to handle.
“One of the biggest hurdles we face is that an orangutan can snap an iPad like you or I could rip cardboard,” said Richard Zimmerman, executive director of Orangutan Outreach.”Even the little guys … are incredibly strong. A big male could take it apart in about five seconds.”
Before the apes can be given their personal iPads the team needs to find an orangutan proof case for the device. But even with the short sessions, the iPad has aroused incredible inquisitiveness among the two orangutans.
“It was amazing to see how they welcomed this strange device into their area,” says Scott Engel, the iPad enrichment coordinator at the zoo.
He recalls how the program started as a mere April Fool’s day joke.
“A friend of a friend who is a gorilla keeper at the zoo was half-joking about getting an iPad to use with gorillas after seeing a story in the UK Sun,” he said.
The joke seemed like a workable idea and Engel immediately contacted the zoo to try and device a program with orang-utans. He now spends 20-30 minutes 3-4 times a week with MJ and Mahal who have been totally bugged by the new device.
Engel started by holding his old iPad behind the visitor’s glass. He used the camera and saw how the apes were amazed to see their faces. Eventually he started using the device in a back area where the orangutans could reach through a cage door and touch it. Last week he allowed them to touch it for the first time.
From finger-painting with DrawFree to watching television and playing games, there is no stopping the two fans of the iPad now. MJ especially likes the fantasy filled story books.
“I’ll show (“Morris Lessmore”) to them through the glass and they love the combination of movement, sound and color,” Engel said. “They will sit for about 20 minutes, listening to the story. In fact, MJ and I finished the book in one session.”
Videos too are an incredible attraction
“We’ll show the orangutans videos of themselves, videos of wild orangutans, and other animals that reside at the zoo,” Engel said. “This has been very successful and really seems to hold their interest. In fact I think orangutan MJ has a crush on David Attenborough. Whenever he comes on to narrate a scene, her eyes light up and she just stares.”
According to Zimmerman, Orangutans are highly intelligent creatures and they need to be mentally stimulated so as not to get bored and depressed. The iPad thus is an extremely useful device to keep them active.
“Orangutans are very tactile and their natural curiosity is perfect for a device like an iPad,” he said. “They are open to all types of enrichment and we think that the touchscreen ‘games’ will be really good for them – especially during the winter months in northern climates when they spend long periods of time indoors. Orangutans love painting with their fingers as well as brushes, and they seem to take quickly to using their fingers to paint on the touchscreen. We have a lot of different ideas we want to try with them and a lot of interest in the zoo community around the country.”
Zoos in Toronto, Phoenix, Honolulu, Memphis and Florida and Atlanta are next in the list where the program will be introduced.
Zimmerman feels the program can play an important role in making visitors appreciate the intelligence of orang-utans and help conserve them.
“If the iPad games can help alleviate any boredom they might otherwise feel, we are all for it! And if zoo visitors can see this in practice and then go home with a better appreciation for the orangutans as sentient, intelligent beings who need to be protected in the wild, then everybody wins!”
The next ambitious plan of the zoo is to organise a ‘Primate Playdate’ through the iPad.
“One of our goals is to be able to have the orangutans interact and communicate amongst themselves … essentially being able to go online and see who else is online … and contacting them to be able to ‘play,'” he said. “We’ve been calling it ‘Primate Playdate.'”
The director feels this can even expand to involving visitors who can play online games with the apes!
Engel says the best thing about the program is that the apes do not get any food or rewards for participating. They do it out of their own will and do what they feel like.
“Play is a huge component of this type of enrichment and I’ve found that a simple app like the camera app on the iPad is wonderful,” Engel said. “The awesome thing is that when I arrive at the orangutan area, Mj and Mahal come over to see me and they seem to look forward to our enrichment sessions. The super-amazing thing about the whole experience is that they don’t get any reward for this – no food or treats, they just get to play. They chose to greet me and let me hang out with them. That is the best thing about it. They get to decide something. I’m just along for the ride.”
If the plans go well, soon, we may actually be playing online with our buddies of the ape world.