Orangutans, it turns out, love the iPad and its games just as much as some humans do.
A budding program at the Milwaukee County Zoo is working to place iPads into the giant, gentle palms of their orangutans. Two of the zoo's orangutans already look forward to weekly sessions with an iPad. They even have favourite apps, shows and games, but they haven't yet been given free rein with the Apple device because keepers worry they might get frustrated and simply snap one in half.
"One of the biggest hurdles we face is that an orangutan can snap an iPad like you or I could rip cardboard," said Richard Zimmerman, executive director of Orangutan Outreach, which hopes to extend Milwaukee's iPad enrichment program to zoos around the country. "Even the little guys like Mahal are incredibly strong. A big male could take it apart in about five seconds."
Before extending the program, allowing the orangutan's to have personal iPads, Zimmerman and his group needs to find an orangutan-proof case. But the program is still making strides in its infancy in Milwaukee.
It started as an April Fool's joke, Scott Engel, the iPad Enrichment Coordinator at the zoo, tells me.
"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," he said.
While the Sun's story was an April Fool's Day joke, Engel thought, 'Why not?' So he contacted Milwaukee County Zoo to float the idea of using his old iPad to work with orangutans. Now Engel spends 20 minutes three-to-four days a week working with MJ and Mahal.
Engel started by showing the two the device through the glass where visitors usually stand. The first thing he did was turn on his iPad 2's camera and let the two use the device as a sort of mirror.
"It was amazing to see how they welcomed this strange device into their area," he said.
Once they were used to the iPad, the keepers started using the device in a back area where the orangutans could reach through a cage door and touch it. Last week, the two had their first chance to go completely hands and feet on with the device, though it still isn't allows in the enclosure with them.
The orangutans both have their favourite 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 colour," Engel said. "They will sit for about 20 minutes, listening to the story . In fact, MJ and I finished the book in one session."
The orangutans also seem particularly enchanted with videos.
"We'll show the orangutans videos of themselves, videos of wild orangutans, and other animals that reside at the zoo," Engel said. "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."
The notion of enrichment at zoos is incredibly important, especially with orangutans which are highly intelligent creatures that require mental stimulation to keep from growing bored or depressed, Zimmerman said.
"Orangutans are very tactile and their natural curiosity is perfect for a device like an iPad," he said. "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."
Zimmerman hopes to extend the iPad program to Zoo Atlanta next, where they already have touchscreens built into an "enrichment tree" in the orangutan enclosure. Keepers there are ready to kick off the program, he said. Zoos in Toronto, Phoenix, Honolulu, Memphis and Florida are also on board with the idea.
"As long as the orangutans are the decision-makers, the enrichment can be great for them," Zimmerman said. "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!"
Once the program is more established, and once the have a solution for protecting iPads from the incredible strength of an orangutan, Zimmerman hopes to kick off a second phase of the program.
"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'," he said. "We've been calling it 'Primate Playdate'."
And the hope isn't just that orangutans will go online to play video games with each other, from zoo to zoo, Zimmerman thinks it's possible that zoo visitors could download the same apps and play with and against the primates with their own iPhones and iPads.
"Play is a huge component of this type of enrichment and I've found that a simple app like the camera app on the iPad is wonderful," Engel said. "The awesome thing is that when I arrive at the orangutan area, Mj and Mahal come over to see me and they seem to look forward to our enrichment sessions. The super amazing thing about the whole experience is that they don't get any reward for this - no food or treats, they just get to play. They chose to greet me and let me hang out with them. That is the best thing about it. They get to decide something. I'm just along for the ride."
Images: Scott Engel. Top photo illustration copyright Scott Engel. Mahal trying out his stand-in iPad. His real iPad arrived at the Milwaukee County Zoo on June 3, 2011.
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Mahal makes some art.
MJ tries a three-fingered painting method.
MJ trying out a more precise painting method.
MJ enjoying a page from the Fabulous Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore app.
Mahal getting his first look at the Milwaukee County Zoo's penguins.
Mahal watching a video of a wild orangutan in the rainforest.
Mahal watching David Attenborough narrate a nature special.
Mahal watching a video of a wild orangutan in the rainforest.
iPad art by MJ using the DrawFree App.
Orangutan's MJ and Mahal get their first look at the iPad.