CREDIT: Scott Engel / Orangutan Outreach 2011
Orangutans at zoos nationwide may soon be able to connect with one another and create their own network of friends by using iPads and online chat services such as Skype.
The use of iPads by animals is not new, but researchers and orangutan advocates closely involved with an orangutan enrichment program recently launched at Milwaukee Zoo, wherein orangutans are introduced to iPads, hope to take gadget use amongst orangutans nationwide to a new level.
Richard Zimmerman is working to get zoos across the country to introduce iPads in their orangutan enclaves and thus allow the apes to connect with their brethren thousands of miles away in "primate playdates" via Skype or other chat services. Zoos in Phoenix, Atlanta and Toronto are among those that have agreed to participate.
Zimmerman is the founding director of Orangutan Outreach, an organization dedicated to protecting orangutans in the wild and which collaborates with zoos nationwide.
“Orangutans can communicate via sounds, squeaks and squeals,” Zimmerman said. “They make all sorts of noises and they communicate with their eyes. They roll their eyes at each other. They glare at each other. It’s ingenious.”
And all of this communication is perfectly doable via Skype, Zimmerman points out.
Facebook for animals?
Zimmerman’s hope is that orangutans soon will have complete access to iPads and will be able to see who is online and available at other zoos to “chat.” An orangutan in Milwaukee, for example, might choose to chat with his cousin in Phoenix, or he might prefer another ape in Atlanta.
The first step – getting orangutans to use iPads – has already been achieved. Zimmerman is closely involved with an animal enrichment program at Milwaukee County Zoo that recently introduced two orangutans to iPads. Several times a week, 4-year-old Mahal and his surrogate mom, M.J., tinker on iPads, where they fingerpaint with an app called DrawFree (a favorite), work through the interactive “Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” play a number iPad games and watch TV shows.
The apes have taken to these colorful, tactile devices with ardor, which is no surprise to Zimmerman.
“We know orangutans love doing something tactile, and they are naturally very curious and inquisitive,” said Zimmerman. “Putting orangutans with a touch screen, there’s a grace to it. It’s phenomenal to watch.”
Although the Milwaukee program has been greeted by a media brouhaha, this isn’t the first time animals have been paired with iPads or touch-screen devices. In Mexico, the bottlenose dolphin Merlin has tested a dolphin app on the iPad , and the Atlanta Zoo has had a concrete “learning tree” in its orangutan enclosure for several years. Atlanta’s tree contains a touch screen where orangutans can take part in game-like activities that test their memory, such as the childhood favorite where you match identical images. But unlike the tests you take at school, these orangutans perform these “tests” without any prodding from instructors.
“One thing we’re proud of is it’s voluntary on the part of the orangutan,” said Lori Perkins, director of animal programs at Atlanta Zoo. “The tree is in their habitat, it’s in their home. If they want to interact, they do; if they don’t want to, they don’t.”
[Read also “8 Humanlike Behaviors of Primates.”]
Biologists say one possible reason orangutans are particularly inclined to participate in such tests is that their natural habitats present challenges that demand similar cognitive skills.
“Orangutans in the wild have a lifestyle that involves solving puzzles,” said Perkins, who also coordinates the Orangutan Species Survival Plan, which ensures genetic diversity among orangutans in captivity.
“Orangutans are tree-dwelling animals and fruit eaters. There’s a lot you have to solve cognitively if you’re a fruit eater. You have to memorize the terrain of your habitat, when different trees in your environment are fruiting and where they are. You have to know how to get inside the packages that fruits come in ― oranges have a peel, some exotic fruits have sharp spines.”
Solving conundrums satisfies an intrinsic drive in many animals, and thus it's not surprising that in Atlanta the orangutan matriarch Madu will sort different types of birds, fish or trains into distinct categories for hours without any reward other than the mental challenge itself.
Zimmerman hopes that when people see orangutans using iPads, they will realize how remarkable the animals are and that they are worth protecting in the wild.
“One thing to remember is here we are in the West, doing these fun things which are awesome, but our mission is to save the orangutans in the wild, where their situation is drastic,” Zimmerman said. “When people see that these are cool creatures doing stuff on the iPad, people will think, ‘Oh my god, we ‘ve got to protect these animals.’”
Before orangutans can start Skyping with each other, however, engineers have to figure out how to orangutan-proof an iPad, Zimmerman said.
Obstacles to overcome
Currently, the head of primates at the Milwaukee Zoo approaches Mahal and M.J. with an iPad and lets them use it, but the apes don’t have full access to the device.
“We’re not at a point where the orangutans can hold the iPads, because they have an amazing ability to dismantle, so we have to get housing for the iPads to make them unbreakable,” said Zimmerman.
“Whether orangutans will be walking around with an iPad we don’t know; that depends on the engineers. So far, we’ve been approached by companies that do wall-mounted touch screens of various sizes.”