iPads for orangutans: Program at Toronto Zoo would let apes use tablets for art and socializing

FEBRUARY 29, 2012
View the Source: Canada.com

Orangutans at the Toronto Zoo may soon be monkeying around with Apple's iconic iPad as a way to stimulate them and foster "primate play dates."

Apps for Apes, the brainchild of Richard Zimmerman and Orangutan Outreach, aims to give the primates a creative outlet to create art or music on, and maybe even to Skype with their relatives in zoos across North America.

"One of our big plans is to have the zoos Wi-Fi-ed, and then orangutans will be able to see each other in different facilities," said Zimmerman. "We're calling these 'primate play dates.'"

A similar program was started last year at the Milwaukee zoo.

"Around Christmas, our gorilla keeper was on Facebook and saw a joke about a gorilla using iPads," said Jan Rafert, curator of primates and small mammals at the Milwaukee zoo. "She then put the word out that she wished she had some for our gorillas. A volunteer saw that and donated one."

The apes use the iPad in a remarkably similar way to humans.

"We have three orangutans, an adult male, an adult female and a youngster," said Rafert. "The male lives separately from the other two, but the mother and child enjoy watching video of the male. They recognize him and they recognize themselves."

The program is now being expanded to include other zoos.

The program could provide stimulation during long northern winters, when orangutans are often kept locked indoors, proponents hope.

"We want to make sure that the orangutans get more enrichment," said Zimmerman. "This is strictly for those orangutans born in captivity . . . that can benefit mentally from this sort of activity."

The idea for the program came to Zimmerman the moment he saw the iPad.

"Orangutans have plenty of experience in zoos and research facilities using touch screens and using computers and this type of device would allow an infinite number of apps to be available," Zimmerman said.

In Milwaukee, the zoo keepers hold the iPad as the apes interact with the machine.

Zimmerman is working on ways to mount the iPad in secure boxes within the cages.

"Orangutans are very curious and have a different way of approaching problems," said Zimmerman. "They will watch and study and observe and almost reverse-engineer things. They will literally take the pieces off and hide the pieces."

At this point, Apple is not involved in the program and all iPads used are from donations. Zimmerman hopes this will change. Until it does, he is looking for iPad donations.

It was Zimmerman's own love of technology that inspired him to start Orangutan Outreach in 2005.

"My background is IT and I really wanted to use the web and social media in a way that hadn't been used before," said Zimmerman.

Because of rapid deforestation in their native rainforest home of Sumatra and Borneo, orangutans are currently a critically endangered species and may not last more than a few years in the wild. There are currently about 55 members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums involved in the Orangutan Species Survival Plan.