Going ape for apps: young orangutan plays with iPad

Apr 06, 2012 by Mira Oberman
Orangutans watch a video on an iPad held up to the glass of their enclosure at Milwaukee County Zoo. Zoo keepers have been using iPads as enrichment tools for nearly a year now and is retrofiting their building with wifi so the playful primates can soon have 'playdates' with orangutans at other zoos using livestreaming video applications like FaceTime.

The young orangutan reaches his hand through the cage and rubs his knuckles over an iPad, drawing wide colors across the screen with his favorite app.

A few minutes later, Mahal presses his face up against the mesh, stretches out his long tongue and taps the screen to make it light up and play his favorite song, "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."

Soon Mahal and the two other at the Milwaukee, Wisconsin county zoo will be able to use their for something even more exciting: "play dates" with orangutans at other zoos and wildlife preserves.

They're already fascinated by videos of orangutans they've watched on the tablet. Their keepers are hoping a live video feed will be even more engaging.

"We're excited to see where that goes," said Trish Kahn, the zoo's primate coordinator.

"It could be they don't care at all, but, from what I understand of them, I think they're definitely going to be able to understand this is real time and they're looking at another orangutan."

Nearly a year after the zoo introduced iPads as a form of enrichment, the building is being rewired for wifi so the orangutans can have their play dates and the public can watch them on a webcam.

Several other zoos have also introduced tablets to primates with the help of the non-profit Orangutan Outreach, which launched the "Apps for Apes" campaign after seeing how much the Milwaukee orangutans enjoyed playing with the iPads.

The goal is twofold: to bring a powerful new enrichment activity to the orangutans and to get zoo visitors engaged in the fight to protect an endangered species.

"It's really important for the public to connect with these animals because we're losing them in the wild -- they're facing extinction," Kahn told AFP.

Orangutans watch a video on an iPad held up to the glass of their enclosure by a volunteer at the Milwaukee County Zoo. The zoo has been using iPads as enrichment tools for its three orangutan for nearly a year now and are retrofiting their building with wifi so the playful primates can soon have 'playdates' with orangutans at other zoos using livestreaming video applications like FaceTime.

"For me the most important thing is for people to recognize these are sentient beings that are so incredible, that have all these wonderful adaptations and a profound brain."

So in addition to the in their private feeding area, the zoo also offers iPad enrichment in the public viewing area, where volunteer Scott Engel shows them videos through the thick glass.

'They can brighten your day'

Crowds of people are drawn to Engel and pepper him with questions about the orangutans and the iPad.

They laugh when he tells them that Mahal likes to watch penguin videos while his adoptive mother MJ hankers for BBC nature shows by David Attenborough.

They lean in to take pictures when MJ taps on the glass to get Engel to start the next video.

And they listen when he tells them how orangutans are losing their natural habits as rainforests in Indonesia are burned to make way for palm oil plantations.

Engel, a freelance photographer who has been visiting the zoo to hone his craft for years, got the program going as a bit of a lark after a doctored photo of a gorilla playing with an iPad made the rounds online.

He made contact with the Milwaukee zoo's gorilla keeper over Facebook and offered to donate his old iPad after he upgraded to the iPad 3.

Now, he's coming to the zoo several times a week to show the orangutans videos -- many of which he shoots himself.

"It's just amazing to make a connection with an animal," Engel said. "They can brighten your day."

Mahal will raise his hands and clap when he sees Engel and likes to play peek-a-boo by bending under the window frame.

MJ taps her forehead to get Engel to show her the top of his head, or points to her eyes to get him to wipe his face for her.

The most special moments, Engel said, come when the zoo's introverted and somewhat anxious 30-year-old male orangutan comes out of his corner to say hello.

Tommy used to spend most of his days out of sight or with his back to the window.

But he's excited about the iPad, and having Engel stand outside his window seems to have made Tommy more interested in watching other people as they lean in to get a look at his long orange fur and flat black face.

"To see him out and about and engaging and not hiding in his corner is wonderful to us," Kahn said. "He's incredible, and we want people to see him."

Explore further: Calcium and reproduction go together

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Indonesia releases orangutans into the wild

Feb 28, 2012

Four orangutans were released into the wild on Indonesia's Borneo island on Tuesday, an official said, as the country ramps up efforts to protect the animals from extinction.

Palm oil putting orangutans at risk

Oct 22, 2007

Conservationists meeting at the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago say growing demand for palm oil is putting Sumatran orangutans at risk of extinction.

Orangutan copy cats (w/ Video)

Feb 07, 2011

You know the saying "monkey see, monkey do?" How about "orangutan see, orangutan do?" If that holds true, the small orangutan peering over his mother's shoulder in an enclosure at Zoo Atlanta should learn ...

Alarm over fate of world's orangutans

Mar 26, 2007

A U.N. report details grave danger to the world's population of orangutans due to a booming palm oil industry in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Orangutan release may begin next year

Dec 06, 2006

The first 90 of more than 1,000 orangutans are to be released in early 2007 in two areas of Borneo as part of a project to save the species.

Malaysia tracks orangutans with implants

Nov 24, 2009

Malaysian wildlife authorities are using electronic implants to keep track of orangutans in a bid to protect the endangered apes after they are freed into the wild, an official said Tuesday.

Recommended for you

Calcium and reproduction go together

1 hour ago

Everyone's heard of the birds and the bees. But that old expression leaves out the flowers that are being fertilized. The fertilization process for flowering plants is particularly complex and requires extensive communication ...

Orb-weaving spiders living in urban areas may be larger

Aug 20, 2014

A common orb-weaving spider may grow larger and have an increased ability to reproduce when living in urban areas, according to a study published August 20, 2014 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Eli ...

User comments : 19

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Mike_Massen
1.7 / 5 (6) Apr 06, 2012
Why dont they just give several toughened iPads with suitable software to a few of the various primates and see how they interact ?
Putting one in front of a glass is pretty dismal and one-dimensional.
You might have a couple of iPads damaged or even smashed but hey there are lots of cheap version 1's around now and you might have to break a few to make progress in stimulating primate's communication skills (they might just learn to treat them more gently than rubber balls) - all primates seem to bias towards visual cues (as info sources) and I feel a great deal could be learned watching how more than one primate interacts with others when they both have iPads - comparing notes anyone ?
Telekinetic
2.6 / 5 (5) Apr 06, 2012
I have a different take on the whole thing which is that it doesn't strike me as "cute" or necessary to foist our neurotic obsessions on a species that's been decimated and abused by human activities, let alone being caged for us to gawk at. These orangutans are sophisticated in their own right and should be treated with reverence and respect. Humans are so sick, it's sickening.
Deathclock
1 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2012
Why should they be treated with "reverence and respect"?

They should be treated with compassion, sure, but reverence and respect? I don't understand why...
Telekinetic
5 / 5 (2) Apr 06, 2012
Why should they be treated with "reverence and respect"?

They should be treated with compassion, sure, but reverence and respect? I don't understand why...

The way that all life should be treated, that's why.
Mike_Massen
1 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2012
So Telekinetic, are saying we shouldnt find wider range of means to communicate, the tone of your post after mine isnt particularly clear in that respect ?
Deathclock
1.2 / 5 (5) Apr 06, 2012
Why should they be treated with "reverence and respect"?

They should be treated with compassion, sure, but reverence and respect? I don't understand why...

The way that all life should be treated, that's why.


We should treat bacteria with reverence and respect? We should treat kudzu with reverence and respect? Better stop cutting your grass, that's not showing proper reverence and respect for grass :rolleyes:
Kinedryl
1 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2012
Well, the human animals are now fighting for their survival, being ignorant for cold fusion and another findings, but in more distant future I'd expect more paternalistic stance from humans - the biosphere evolved with us for billions of years and it's one of our moral obligations to protect it together with us - well, at the global level. It doesn't mean, the eating of salad is the killing of innocent victim by now, but we should protect our life environment for future, because nowhere in the accessible Universe is the same place, like the Earth. We're at home right here and nowhere else. In addition, we still know too little about how animals and maybe even plants think and communicate.
Deathclock
1.3 / 5 (4) Apr 06, 2012
the biosphere evolved with us for billions of years and it's one of our moral obligations to protect it together with us - well, at the global level. It doesn't mean, the eating of salad is the killing of innocent victim by now, but we should protect our life environment for future, because nowhere in the accessible Universe is the same place, like the Earth. We're at home right here and nowhere else.


What you're describing is basic self preservation, nothing more.
xen_uno
5 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2012
I think Kinetic meant it more in regards to sentient beings, which based on Death's replies one has to wonder if Death himself is one. Thankfully not everyone thinks like him except, disturbingly, some the religious (and the greedy), who believe god gave humans this bounty to use and abuse in every way possible. Unfortunately now, we are nature's stewards with the ability to preserve or eradicate virtually any species (flora AND fauna) we see fit, by virtue of a huge population spread out over every square mile of habitable land. Google for famous quotes on The Matrix, where Smith compared humans to viruses, collectively destroying everything it touches by expanding and consuming. The parallels are amazing ...
HealingMindN
not rated yet Apr 06, 2012
They need a monkey user interface - not human interface. Give them controls akin to vine swinging, banana eating, feces throwing, etc. From there, they can write their own programs using banana language.
Deathclock
2 / 5 (4) Apr 06, 2012
I think Kinetic meant it more in regards to sentient beings, which based on Death's replies one has to wonder if Death himself is one. Thankfully not everyone thinks like him except, disturbingly, some the religious (and the greedy), who believe god gave humans this bounty to use and abuse in every way possible.


I said that animals should be treated with compassion... yeah, thank god not everyone is like me.

But you know, don't let what I actually said or my actual position get in the way of your appeal to emotion fallacy /yawn
Telekinetic
not rated yet Apr 06, 2012
@xen uno:
I very much appreciate your eloquence in elucidating my thoughts- you have a gift. But I'm learning that sentience is not exclusive to primates or mammals but a wide variety of creatures, and possibly even the smallest of the small, we just don't know yet. What interferes with our knowing is our ego and arrogant nature. I needn't list man's track record of cruelty to make my point, but many before me have called into question the
unnecessary humiliation of animals in captivity, whether it's in zoos, circuses, or laboratories. As long as man feels superior in the animal kingdom because he has the power to dominate, we will never be civilized or humane.
Telekinetic
not rated yet Apr 06, 2012
So Telekinetic, are saying we shouldnt find wider range of means to communicate, the tone of your post after mine isnt particularly clear in that respect ?

If you really want to learn how it's possible to communicate with primates in a non-invasive way, read the experiences of Goodall and Fossey, who brought humility and selflessness to the study of these beautiful beings in their natural habitat, and were then transformed by their experience.
Deathclock
1 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2012
So Telekinetic gave me a 1 rating because I said that animals should be treated with compassion. This implies that he does not believe that animals should be treated with compassion. What an asshole!
Mike_Massen
1 / 5 (1) Apr 07, 2012
@Telekinetic
At this present time I'm not a primate researcher or likely to be, yes I am aware of the work of Goodall and Fossey - thats tangential to point of this thread - apes with iPads. You seem to be upset and reflective of many apes negative situations we have great difficulty controlling from here.

What I am trying to say and obviously I havent been clear enough is:-

In this situation with a captive ape where (potentially limiting) assumptions are made as to its intelligence, instead of an ape looking at an iPad through glass with a tech present. Wouldnt it be far better to offer toughened (or cheapie) iPads, with "helpfully" altered user interfaces, into the hands of several cohabiting apes and let them loose at their leisure or interest, so to speak, so they can play and discover together something new and which may stimulate their interest and simultaneously offer useful information for those sincere in looking for greater opportunity to communicate - in that situation ?

MarkyMark
not rated yet Apr 07, 2012
I have a different take on the whole thing which is that it doesn't strike me as "cute" or necessary to foist our neurotic obsessions on a species that's been decimated and abused by human activities, let alone being caged for us to gawk at. These orangutans are sophisticated in their own right and should be treated with reverence and respect. Humans are so sick, it's sickening.

So your saying there lives shouldnt be enriched with toys and good food and they should be locked up inside so they cant be gawked at rather than being let outside in an enclosure where they may get gawked at then ?
Au-Pu
5 / 5 (1) Apr 07, 2012
Xen uno and Telekinetic are on the right path.
We do have stewardship of the planet simply because we have become the dominant life form.
But we are not using that dominance intelligently.
Once we were few, now we have passed 7 billion and speeding up as we race to 8 billion.
We are approaching plague proportions and are not even starting to address that problem.
All plagues result in the build up of massive numbers and end in massive numbers of deaths.
Is that where our "intelligence" is heading us?
One would hope that somehow we would realise that there is a finite number the earth can carry.
We already have problems of starvation in parts of the world and our population continues to grow at an ever increasing rate.
If we were half as intelligent as we think we are we would have addressed this problem long ago. Sadly our mastery of technology deludes us into believing that we are much more intelligent than we really are.
Fundamentally we remain savages with advanced technology.
Mike_Massen
1 / 5 (1) Apr 07, 2012
Au-Pu touched on hypocrisy proselytising that which most already know
Sadly our mastery of technology deludes us into believing that we are much more intelligent than we really are...
@Telekinetic, xen_uno and especially for Au-Pu !

Lets see your intelligence posting those types of comments where they might be better received, be on topic and result in some action - which isnt here. Most intelligent people already know the issue.

Since you three guys share the sentiment, exercise your advanced collaborative intelligence, get together, get focussed and do something constructive instead of offering laments here which are already known in general but way off topic !
Telekinetic
not rated yet Apr 07, 2012
So Telekinetic gave me a 1 rating because I said that animals should be treated with compassion. This implies that he does not believe that animals should be treated with compassion. What an asshole!

The coward is emboldened by his anonymity.