Share this article

print logo

Going ape over apps, orangutans interact using iPads in zoo habitat

The 8-year-old twins love their iPad. They draw, play games and expand their vocabulary. Their family's teenagers also like the hand-held computer tablets, too, but the clan's elders show no interest.

The orangutans at Miami's Jungle Island apparently are just like people when it comes to technology. The park is one of several zoos experimenting with computers and apes, letting its six orangutans use an iPad to communicate and as part of a mental stimulus program. Linda Jacobs, who oversees the program, hopes the devices will eventually help bridge the gap between humans and the endangered apes.

"Our young ones pick up on it. They understand it. It's like, 'Oh, I get this,' " Jacobs said. "Our two older ones, they just are not interested."

Jacobs said she began letting the orangutans use iPads last summer, based on the suggestion of someone who had used the devices with dolphins. The software was originally designed for humans with autism, and the screen displays pictures of various objects. A trainer then names one of the objects, and the ape presses the corresponding button.

The devices have been a great addition to the enrichment programs Jungle Island already does with the orangutans, Jacobs said. Keepers have long used sign language to communicate with them. Using their hands, the orangutans can respond to simple questions, identify objects and express their wants or needs. The apes can also identify body parts, helping the trainers care for them and even give them shots.

Richard Zimmerman, executive director of Orangutan Outreach, said he's building an "Apps for Apes" program with old, donated iPads at facilities throughout North America, though Jungle Island isn't part of that group. Orangutan Outreach started working with the Milwaukee County Zoo and then expanded to zoos in Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Toronto, Houston and elsewhere. They're hoping to use a videoconferencing program to reconnect orangutans with friends and family members who have been transferred to other zoos, he said.

"We're putting together what we're calling primate play dates or red ape rendezvous, which is to say connecting the orangutans in different facilities," Zimmerman said. "We're looking at a larger picture."

When it comes to orangutans, the iPad itself has limitations. First, the relatively small screen causes orangutans to hit the wrong buttons sometimes. Also, the touchscreen won't register if they try to use their fingernails. Most importantly, the devices are just too fragile to actually hand over to the apes -- the trainers must hold them.

"If I gave them the iPad, I could just basically hand them $600 and say, 'Go have fun,' " Jacobs said.

"So until we come up with a better screen or a better case, I'm going to hold on to the iPad."