There’s an ape for that iPad

The Toronto Zoo is hoping to use tablets as enrichment for the facility’s six orangutans

When Jahe left Toronto for Memphis, she had to leave her brother Budi and mother Puppe behind. As most orangutans never develop 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 — a New York based orangutan conservation effort — created a program called Apps for Apes (A4A). He said it is an enrichment program that uses Apple iPads to engage orangutans in captive situations.

The Toronto Zoo’s six orangutans will eventually participate in this program once they receive a monetary donation or an iPad. With the iPad 3 set to be released in a few weeks Zimmerman is hoping people will choose to donate their old tablets to the program.

“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 the matriarch of a new family — to see [using the webcam feature of the iPad] her mother and little brother back in Toronto.”

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.

Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. 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 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 percent or two. They’re tactile like we are, they like to use their hands and their fingers,” he said.

Berridge says the characteristics of an orangutan mesh 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.”

Zimmerman hopes the interest in the A4A program will bring awareness to the orangutan’s plight.

“What we are dealing with in Borneo and Sumatra is just horrific—they’re brutally killed. We want people to see this sort of story and realize these are intelligent beings that should not be suffering the way.”