US, Canadian zoos use apps to teach apes

2012-09-03 20:22
Orangutans MJ and her adoptive son Mahal watch a video on an iPad held up to the glass of their enclosure by volunteer Scott Engel at the Milwaukee County Zoo. (Mira Oberman, AFP)

Orangutans MJ and her adoptive son Mahal watch a video on an iPad held up to the glass of their enclosure by volunteer Scott Engel at the Milwaukee County Zoo. (Mira Oberman, AFP)

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Toronto - Humans aren't the only species on the planet with a penchant for electronic gadgets. Zookeepers across the United States and Canada are discovering that apes also get excited about apps.

As part of a programme called Apps for Apes, 12 zoos across the two countries have been incorporating iPads into the enrichment time allotted for orangutans, the giant furry red primates native to Indonesia and Malaysia.

"We're finding that, similar to people, they like touching the tablet, watching short videos of David Attenborough for instance, and looking at other animals and orangutans," said Richard Zimmerman, founding director of Orangutan Outreach, the New York City-based non-profit that runs the programme.

Twice weekly, orangutans are provided with access to the tablets. The animals spend from 15 minutes to a half hour using different apps depending on their attention span.

Apps geared towards children that stimulate activities such as painting, music and memory games are among the most popular apps with the apes.

At the Toronto Zoo, zookeeper Matthew Berridge uses apps such as Doodle Buddy for drawing, Montessori Counting Board and Activity Memo Pocket, a memory game, in addition to playing YouTube videos for the apes.

"It's a lot like when we're showing children pop-up books," said Zimmerman, adding that the orangutans are among the most intelligent primates, with the intelligence level of a young child.

Zookeepers are also investigating how communication apps, such as those for the autistic, can help the animals to express themselves better, according to Zimmerman.

"Let's say an orangutan has a toothache. He or she would be able to then tap on the iPad on a picture of a tooth and communicate it that way," he explained.

Critically endangered

One very intelligent, but armless, orangutan at the Centre for Great Apes in Wauchula, Florida is so intent on using the device that she uses her feet to navigate through the touchscreens.

"When you see the enjoyment and focus on their faces it's special, especially for orangutans who are in an enclosure all day and you're providing enrichment for them," said Zimmerman.

Because the tablets are so fragile the zookeepers handle the apps while the animals navigate the touchscreen, but the organisation is investigating creating larger, more rugged casings.

The program, which is not meant to replace physical stimulation or climbing, also aims to raise awareness about the threats orangutans face in the wild.

"We're hoping that in that moment we can make a breakthrough with [zoo visitors] and say, 'Listen, these are beautiful animals that are obviously curious and intelligent and not too far from us and this is what they're dealing with in the wild,'" said Zimmerman.

Orangutans are critically endangered because of the rapid deforestation and expansion of palm oil plantations into their rainforest homes, he added.

The programme, which relies on donated iPads, will soon be expanding to zoos across Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Europe.

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