Tech Savvy Apes Use iPads at the Zoo

By Amanda Ciccatelli January 23, 2013

Orangutans at the Smithsonian National Zoo are now using iPad apps to learn and play. The zoo has decided to launch a program called Apps for Apes, an initiative from the conservation organization Orangutan Outreach, which has provided tablet devices for the primates in 12 other zoos, including zoos in Houston, Atlanta, Toronto, Utah and Milwaukee. With a simple tap of a finger, keepers are introducing the zoo’s six orangutans to iPads, providing unique stimuli.

Today, orangutans are among humans' closest living relatives and there are just a few tens of thousands left in Sumatran rain forests and Borneo rain forests, where they are critically endangered. Enrichment is an important part of the quality of life for the animals, so staff study animal behavior and determine what kinds of enrichment are appropriate for each species and individual animals. Since 1994, the National Zoo’s orangutans have used touch screen monitors as part of a cognitive study that tests orangutan memory, tool use and social learning.

To date, the apes are using 10 different apps including cognitive games, drawing programs and ones featuring virtual musical instruments. In fact, according to, some orangutans are showing their preferences as 36-year-old Bonnie likes to hit the drums, 16-year-old Kyle likes to play the piano, and 25-year-old Iris likes watching animated fish swim in a virtual pond on the screen.

Image via Smithsonian Science

"It's about changing up the day-to-day lives of our animals," Becky Malinsky, a zoo keeper, said in a statement. "We already vary their food, toys and social interactions every day, but the iPad offers another way to engage their sight, touch and hearing."

Richard Zimmerman, founding director of Orangutan Outreach, told TIME Magazine that he hopes the program would help spread a conservation message, as well as assist the highly intelligent zoo animals from not getting too bored.

"Primarily, we want the Apps for Apes program to help people understand why we need to protect wild orangutans from extinction," Zimmerman added. "We do that when we show zoo visitors how similar humans and apes are, be it through observation, talking with wildlife experts or seeing the apes use the same technology we use every day."

Zoo Spokeswoman Jen Zoon told The Huffington Post that visitors may be able to spot the orangutans using their iPads. She said the devices are brought to the Great Ape House at least twice per month, usually on Wednesdays and that the zoo is hoping to give the orangutans more screen time in the future.

Orangutan Outreach is currently accepting iPad donations and will distribute the tablets to zoos around the country.

Edited by Jamie Epstein

TechZone360 Web Editor

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