iPad? There’s an ape for that

When Jahe left Toronto for Memphis, she had to leave her brother Budi and mother Puppe behind. As most orangutans never develop any telephone or driving skills, Jahe hasn’t been able to see them in almost two years.

Thankfully, there’s an app for that — or more like an entire tablet.

Richard Zimmerman, director at Orangutan Outreach has created a program called Apps for Apes (A4A): an enrichment program that uses iPads to engage orangutans in captive situations.

The Toronto Zoo’s six orangutans will eventually participate in this program once an iPad or a monetary donation for the device is attained.

“The Toronto Zoo is very high on the list and we’re hoping that the big media push over the last couple of days gets at least one iPad in there,” Zimmerman said. “We would love for Jahe — who moved to be a matriarch of a new family — to see her mother and little brother back in Toronto. That’s part of the effort to get Toronto going.”

Matthew Berridge, a wildlife keeper at the Toronto Zoo, said A4A will also be a form of socialization.

“Down the road, it will hopefully provide them with an opportunity to meet potential mates or orangutans they can be housed with,” Berridge said. “We can kind of see who they are more interested in, and share video with other zoos of orangutans doing different activities.”

Berridge said orangutans using touch screen technology isn’t a new concept.

“Zoo Atlanta has been doing a lot, and Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC has what they call the think tank where they use touch screens,” Berridge said. “ The Great Ape Trust did a lot of cognitive research with orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos with touch screens. We’ve been using them here for about 10 years.”

The Toronto Zoo employee said using an iPad is a natural progression from what they currently are using: a bulky old Mac monitor with a touch screen in front of it.

Zimmerman says one of the reasons orangutans respond to this type of technology is their similarities to humans.

“They share about 97 per cent of our DNA, give or take a per cent or two. They’re tactile like we are, they like to use their hands and their fingers,” Zimmerman said.

Scott Engel/Orangutan Outreach — Zimmerman said the orangutans enjoy the painting apps, since they also paint in real life as enrichment. “It just involves lots of non toxic edible paint,” he said. “It always ends up in their mouths which is why iPads are so wonderful, they’re a lot cleaner.” (Scott Engel/Orangutan Outreach)

There have been reports that some orangutans had been using iPhones as a trial run for the tablet. However Zimmerman said it isn’t true.

“Somehow the facts got messed up; there were no iPhones,” Zimmerman said. “I did show Jahe an iPhone when I was in Memphis last year: a picture of Puppe, her mother. But iPhones are too small. The male orangutans have very large hands, their fingers are just are too big for even iPads. We are trying to create an interface with our developers or an app itself that will allow for bigger iPad screens.”

Berridge said the characteristics of an orangutan meshes well with the advanced technology of the iPad.

“They’re curious and very intelligent,” Berridge said. “Unlike any of the other great apes, orangutans are solitary and more self-reliant on learning, rather than using the whole group to move around. They’re basically people that don’t talk.”

Since they are solitary, staff are able to work with orangutans one on one with the tablet, though not all primates respond to it.

“The major great apes we have [at the Toronto Zoo] are gorillas and orangutans,” Berridge said. “Milwaukee Zoo tried the iPads with the gorillas and they weren’t that responsive. If it works here, we will share it with the gorillas.”

Both Berridge and Zimmerman hope the recent interest in the A4A program will help bring awareness to the plight of the orangutans.

“Ultimately this isn’t a gimmick: there really is immediate enrichment for the orangutans. But the larger issue is we want the orangutans in the zoos to truly be ambassadors for their wild cousins who are in critical danger,” Zimmerman said. “What we are dealing with in Borneo and Sumatra is just horrific — they’re brutally killed, their parents are eaten, and the babies are trafficked to the illegal pet trade. We want people to see this sort of story and realize these are intelligent beings that should not be suffering the way they are in the wild.”

Berridge said that if things don’t change the species can be extinct in the next five to 10 years.

“Their habitat is being destroyed at an alarming rate due to palm oil plantations. Very biodiverse ecosystems are being replaced with palm trees which is only one species, and it forces a lot of animals to find a new place to live,” Berridge said. “They are over crowding, and coming into greater contact with humans, and when that happens those conflicts are usually negative for the orangutan.”