Apps for apes: Orangutans want iPads for Christmas
Forget bananas. The biggest hit in zoos this year is an Apple, though orangs have more of a geek streak than gorillas
IT STARTED as a joke. On 1 April 2011, British newspaper The Sun ran a story claiming that an experiment to entertain captive gorillas using iPads had left them crazy for the game Angry Birds. "Planet of the Apps", as the April fool's story was headlined, quickly found its way to Scott Engel, a freelance photographer and volunteer at Milwaukee County Zoo in Wisconsin. Engel knew his 3-year-old niece loved using a finger-painting app, so why not a great ape? He had just bought a new iPad, and hearing the zoo's gorilla keeper was looking for ways to keep his charges entertained, Engel offered the zoo his old one.
It turned out that Milwaukee's gorillas lack the geek streak. Direct eye contact is a threat gesture, so faces on the gadget's screen may put them off, Engel suggests. However, the zoo's orang-utans went bananas for Apple's tablet and soon Engel had rustled up three more iPads to keep the apes busy.
Mahal, a 4-year-old male, and his 31-year-old adoptive mother MJ were fascinated from the start. The first time Mahal saw his own image on the screen - taken with the iPad's camera - he threw up his hands and clapped. A shy male named Tommy took a while to warm to his tablet, says Engel, "but now he's really into it".
Then Richard Zimmerman of Orangutan Outreach, a conservation group based in New York, heard about the experiment. He saw its potential for both entertaining apes and studying their behaviour. With a shrewd eye for publicity, he also spotted its value for raising public awareness of the precarious status of orang-utans in the wild. And then there were the networking opportunities - for the apes, that is. Put iPads in zoos across the US and they could be connected through the internet, using Apesbook perhaps, to offer bored orang-utans online "primate play dates". To help raise funds, Orangutan Outreach launched its Apps for Apes campaign in May.
Orang-utans are the obvious candidates for this kind of activity, says Trish Khan, Milwaukee zoo's head orang-utan keeper. These apes are known for their intelligence, curiosity and creativity (they're notorious escape artists, Khan says) but can quickly become bored and depressed in the monotonous confines of captivity. "Their world is really very small," she says, and that makes a computer a welcome distraction.
Khan's orang-utans aren't the first computer-gaming apes. Orang-utans at Atlanta's zoo have been using a concrete "tree" with an embedded touchscreen computer since 2008. The apes use it to play games in which they categorise, match and sequence images, which provides useful data on how orang-utans learn and think.
However the real IT crowd resides at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC. Since 1994 its orang-utans have used computers both for entertainment and to communicate with keepers using a simple symbol-based language. Currently their "dictionary" contains around 70 symbols including nouns such as food items as well as verbs and adjectives. Eventually syntax - the other building block of language - will be added to see if the orang-utans can construct sentences to communicate with their carers.
At Milwaukee the iPads are still considered tools for entertainment rather than for research. The keepers offer them no more than twice a week, and with no food rewards it's up to the apes whether they participate.
Engel, now the zoo's official iPad enrichment coordinator, shows the orang-utans videos through the glass facing the visitors' area. They're fascinated by clips of other animals; Mahal loves videos of Humboldt penguins, though "he's not too keen on rhinos", Engel says. MJ prefers David Attenborough's BBC documentary on apes. "I think she has a crush on him," Engel adds.
The orang-utans also use free or inexpensive drawing programs such as Doodle Buddy, music app Magic Piano and simple games like Koi Pond. The animated, interactive app The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore is also a favourite. "We're collecting information on their preferences and how they use the iPads, where they position their fingers and how much of the screen they use," Khan says. She would like to commission customised apps with larger buttons and more pictures, and hopes that visitors will be able to download the same apps and use them to compete with the orang-utans in games using their own mobile gadgets.
But first she and Engel must face a challenge of their own. At the moment Milwaukee's apes must reach through their enclosure's metal bars to touch the iPad screens. "If they got a hold of it, they'd take it apart," says Khan. To solve this, keepers at the Smithsonian National Zoo mounted their computers on walls and heavy carts and added transparent plastic covers to protect the screens. Each device then needed additional sensors to measure the position of an orang-utan's fingers. So Khan and her colleagues are looking for a simpler and cheaper way to make the iPad's wafer-thin screen ape-proof. They have begun by contacting industrial designers who specialise in computer casings. Zimmerman also plans to consult dolphin expert Jack Kassewitz for his experience using waterproofed iPads (see "Appiness for all"). "Orang-utans pee on everything," says Zimmerman.
So far about a dozen zoos have expressed interest in joining Apps for Apes. But meeting this demand is proving a challenge. Most zoos operate on shoestring budgets and Zimmerman has struggled to find funding. "We're hoping Apple takes notice," he says.
Should a backer step in, Zimmerman will be able to put his most ambitious plan into effect. With iPads distributed, he hopes to use Skype or Apple's networking software to set up video calls connecting orang-utans with friends - simian or human - no matter how far away. Research by Suzanne MacDonald from York University in Toronto, Canada, has shown that orang-utans can differentiate themselves from gorillas and other primates; whether they would connect a screen image with an actual individual is an interesting question, she says. If they can, play dates might prove useful for letting females view prospective mates.
Zimmerman would also like to offer iPads to orang-utan rehabilitation centres in Indonesia. There, young orang-utans are taught about the dangers they will face once returned to the wild. Current training is crude - for instance orang-utans are shown rubber snakes while loud, unpleasant noise is played. With iPads this training could be expanded and automated. For Khan, though, the project is already reaping rewards. "I'm thrilled when I see kids' mouths drop open and they say, 'Hey Mom, I have that same app at home.' It's like opening a window, and letting them see how intelligent these animals are."