Orangutans have fascinated humans for a long time. Some of their behaviors are uncannily similar to ours. According to the Orangutan Foundation International, they have been observed using leaves like ponchos during a rain storm, wiping their chins with leaves and spending years in mother-child relationships.
In captivity, they are easily bored and can slide into depression. So Orangutan Outreach has started a new program to keep their active minds occupied. Apps for Apes (A4A) is collecting gently used iPads for them.
According to an August 2011 article on Kotaku, the idea was prompted by an April Fool’s joke. Brian Flynn wrote a spoof about gorillas with iPads for The Sun. A friend of a friend told freelance photographer and zoo fan Scott Engel, and he thought, “Why not?”
Now he is the Milwaukee County Zoo’s volunteer iPad Enrichment Coordinator, trying out various apps to provide a more stimulating environment for the zoo’s two orangutans, MJ and Mahal. The apes are delighted with finger painting, drumming, music and other interactive apps. (We even have a favorite app in common, The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore.)
Though Engel works with the orangutans, he is quick to credit Richard Zimmerman, Founding Director of Orangutan Outreach, for his tireless efforts on behalf of these special creatures. He also gives a nod to Zoo Pride volunteer Kim Houk, the friend “who put me in contact with the right people.”
Now the zoo is planning a playdate for the orangutans so they can interact via iPad with orangutans in other zoos and wildlife preserves. The orangutans are too strong to handle the iPads on their own, but with a little help from the humans who look after them, they are making good use of the technology.
Other zoos are also giving the iPads a try. Reports last February indicated the Toronto Zoo was looking for donations of used iPads. And the six orangutans at Miami’s Jungle Island, who started using iPads last summer, are as enthusiastic about their new tool as Milwaukee’s were.
That is, the young ones are. It appears there is a digital divide in the orangutan world. The two older ones can’t be bothered to add a new communication skill to their repertoire.
Video by Scott Engel
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AP Photo/J Pat Carter