Orangutans with iPads

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

Related Care2 Stories

New App Would Help Apes Talk to Humans

Miracle Rescue of Orangutan Caught in Snare (Slideshow)

Orangutan Uses Wet Towel to Cool Off (Video)

How Palm Oil Threatens Orangutans (VIDEO)


AP Photo/J Pat Carter

Love This? Never Miss Another Story.


Abbe A.
Azaima A.3 years ago

I can see us on our iPads at the zoo looking at an orangutan working at her iPad in the cage in front of us.

Gillian Stone
Gillian Stone3 years ago

Well put Gianna M on May 11. I was not impressed watching the video of the orangutan having to touch the pad through the cage mesh. It’s humiliating for this wonderful sentient being to be treated as a caged animal. How about this idea – scrap the zoo cages, rehabilitate the orangutans for release into the wild or a sanctuary, and install large TV screens at the zoo with a program to show visitors how they live in the wild. It’s not as if visitors can interact with the orangutan in the zoo or learn their natural behaviour in this false environment. Cheaper with the savings on food, staff and vet bills.

Carrie Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Christine Stewart

I am glad they are trying to reduce boredom for the poor things.

Terri E.
Terri E.3 years ago

It could be good for them, but somebody needs to come up with Ape-strength pads that they could use on their own. It annoyed me that the human was making so many choices of color, placement, and such, rather than it being a personal interaction. Maybe apple could come up with giant industrial strength units that could be manipulated by them personally - Maybe give back some of the billions in profits people feel the need to shower them with.

Patti R.
Patti Ruocco3 years ago

It is incredibly sad to watch them in those cages. I wish someone could sit next to them and work with the ipads, or they be mounted on the wall....if they have to be in cages to stay alive, there has to be a better cage.

Ginger Hill
Ginger H.3 years ago

Put them back in their natural environment!!! Free these creatures!! Reduce human over-population!!! Plant trees and give them back their homes!!!!

John Mansky
John Mansky3 years ago

Maybe they should be taught,to play video games like "Pac Man" too? They should be in their own natural state and not caged.Free them!..

Charles Temm JR
Charles Temm JR3 years ago

very interesting....a low cost way to increase the quality of life for such primates!

Joanna Perry
Joanna Perry3 years ago

The study of intelligence is better conducted in humans where it is considered important. It is shameful to see magnificent animals behind bars. We should be signing petitions daily encouraging countries with some wildlife left to conserve habitats and promote ecotourism.