Orangutans at the Milwaukee County Zoo could be some of the luckiest orangutans on Earth. Why? Because just like millions of humans, they enjoy using apps, playing games, and watching videos on the iPad.Inspired by an April Fools’ joke from British tabloid The Sun, Scott Engel set up the iPad Enrichment Program which provides orangutans at the Milwaukee County Zoo with Apple’s hugely popular tablet. Engel said, “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,” and he thought “why not?” He contacted the Milwaukee County Zoo to see what they thought of the idea, and the program took off from there.
Engel now spends 20 minutes three to four days a week working with two orangutans called MJ and Mahal, with whom he shares his device. However, they can’t be left alone with the precious tablet, according to Richard Zimmerman, executive director of Orangutan Outreach:
“One of the biggest hurdles we face is that an orangutan can snap an iPad like you or I could rip cardboard. Even the little guys like Mahal are incredibly strong. A big male could take it apart in about five seconds.”
I must admit, I have felt the urge to do this myself when Angry Birds isn’t quite going my way.
So that his device wasn’t smashed to pieces, Engel began by showing it to the orangutans through the glass where visitors stand, using the front-facing camera to mirror their image. ”It was amazing to see how they welcomed this strange device into their area,” he said.
Once they were used to seeing the device, keepers began placing the device at their cage doors so that the orangutans could reach through and play with it. According to Kotaku, they have they favorite apps, games, and TV shows:
The orangutans both have their favorite apps, often spending quite a bit of time finger-painting with DrawFree, watching television shows and even playing games. They’ve tried iFishPond,Flick Kick Football and seem to really love the interactive book The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore.
“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.”
Engel believes MJ has a crush on David Attenborough:
“We’ll show the orangutans videos of themselves, videos of wild orangutans, and other animals that reside at the zoo. 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.”
Orangutans are creatures that require a lot of mental stimulation, and for that reason, the iPad is a perfect play-thing that prevents them from growing bored or depressed. They are incredibly intelligent creatures, so it’s really no wonder that they are able to interact with Apple’s device just like you and I.
“Orangutans are very tactile and their natural curiosity is perfect for a device like an iPad. 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.”
Thanks to the program’s success in Milwaukee County Zoo, Zimmerman intends to extend it elsewhere, with Zoo Atlanta next on his list, which already boasts touch screen devices built into an “enrichment tree.” Zoos in Toronto, Phoenix, Honolulu, Memphis and Florida are also keen on the idea, according to Zimmerman.
“As long as the orangutans are the decision-makers, the enrichment can be great for 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!”
What’s most fascinating is that once the program is more established, Zimmerman hopes that orangutans will be able to go online and interact with each other between zoos. Honestly!
“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’. We’ve been calling it ‘Primate Playdate’.”
Can you imagine orangutans discussing last night’s dinner on Skype, or squaring up against each other in a quick game of Infinity Blade? No, me neither, but it sounds hilarious.
Zimmerman also hopes that not only will the orangutans be able to interact with each other, but that visitors will also be able to download the same apps and games and play against the primates at home. Now this is just getting weird, right?
Check out the full report and some amazing photos over at Kotaku.
I’m certainly looking forward to gaming against a primate on my iPad: usually they stick with Xbox Live as their platform of choice. What about you?