Tech-Savvy Orangutans Love to Watch Cartoons and Play Music

If you’re having trouble adapting to your new iPad, you might want to make a trip to your local zoo and see if any of the orangutans can provide you with a tutorial. Thanks to the Apps for Apes project organized by Orangutan Outreach, a nonprofit whose primary mission is to protect orangutans in their native habitat, these animals are becoming iPad aficionados.

“I got the idea for Apps for Apes when Steve Jobs first gave his presentation on the iPad,” Richard Zimmerman, Executive Director of Orangutan Outreach, tells TakePart. “It literally was an epiphany when I saw the closeup of his fingers moving the images. I thought, ‘Wow, this is perfect for orangutans.’ ”

The project initially started at the Milwaukee County Zoo where one of Orangutan Outreach’s supporters brought his own iPad to work and showed some stories and videos on it to the orangutans. From there, the program spread to other facilities and Orangutan Outreach eventually brought them all together and organized a collective.

Today, less than 60,000 orangutans exist in the wild and scientists and biologists conclude that the species’ numbers have disappeared by more than 70 percent over the last 60 years as a combined result of trapping, hunting, and deforestation.

“Everyone working together and sharing information is really the key to Apps for Apes as a program,” says Zimmerman. “We’re in about a dozen facilities right now and scaling up. National Geographic has started supplying us with used iPads so we’re able to bring in a lot more facilities and we have a pretty big list of zoos that want to join.”

As far as the apes’ seemingly natural dexterity with the iPad, Zimmerman points out that orangutans are physically built similar to humans. “We share about 97 percent of the same DNA,” he says, “and their fingers are like our fingers, albeit longer. So the actual physicality of it is natural and they’re already very tactile creatures and are very sensitive. In the wild they live in the trees so everything is based around their grasp and the use of their hands.”

“They’re very curious and intelligent and want to know more about everything around them,” he adds. “Any time they see or experience something new it’s profound for them. They always go to the new in a similar way that we do, so they’re drawn to the iPad. Also, I should point out that in their inside sleeping areas at zoos, it’s been very common for the orangutans to get lots of enrichment. They watch cartoons and often have access to DVDs, all controlled by their keepers of course, and this is just an extension of that.”

“These animals are amazing in their understanding of how things work,” Jane Anne Franklin, Assistant Mammal Curator at the Louisville Zoo in Kentucky, tells TakePart. “Once they have ‘learned to learn’ in a system, they replicate the behavior. They watch our reaction and, of course, the reinforcement they receive communicates the value that their interaction has with us. The orangutans are geniuses from the environment that they come from and we have to channel that brilliance into things that reinforce them just as if they were searching for a favored fruit in Indonesia.”

The Louisville Zoo learned about Apps for Apes at the annual Orangutan Species Survival Plan workshop—part of the Species Survival Plan Programs with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums—attended by one of their keepers, Jill Katka. “In an effort to get the word out about how critically endangered the orangutans are, and the environment that they come from, we agreed to participate,” says Franklin.

As Apps for Apes spreads to more facilities, Orangutan Outreach is beginning to see some patterns develop in terms of the type of content the orangutans like. “So far they enjoy things that make noise and things that are bright and colorful,” says Zimmerman. “They like piano and keyboard apps along with drumming apps. And they like drawing, which is also an extension of enrichment that already happens. In many zoos, orangutans do paintings with non-toxic paints. In fact, a lot of what we’ve been doing is a digital version of things they’re already familiar with.”

But amidst all this fun, Zimmerman says it’s important to remember that orangutans are critically endangered in the wild because of rapid deforestation and if nothing is done to protect them they’ll be extinct in just a few years.

“While it’s great that we’re able to provide enrichment to individual orangutans or groups in zoos, Orangutan Outreach’s bigger goal is to raise awareness for our conservation efforts,” says Zimmerman. “It’s catastrophic what’s going on in the wild and we really need to call attention to these orangutans in the zoos so they can be ambassadors.”

How can we do more to protect the orangutans still living in the wild?

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Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence |