The comparisons between orangutans and humans are undeniable and multifaceted – they can recognize themselves in a mirror, they have hairlines (that recede, just like ours), they share 97% of our genetic code, and the males tend to be sociable only during mating (we kid). And now, zookeepers across the U.S. and Canada have discovered, both species share a technological fascination, too. For orangutans, playing with iPad apps appears to be as popular among the apes as it is with humans.
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As part of a program called Apps for Apes, launched by New York based not-for-profit Orangutan Outreach, 12 zoos across North America have incorporated playing on donated iPads as part of the orangutans’ mental enrichment time.
The animals spend anywhere between five minutes to half an hour playing on the tablets, which are held by the zookeepers. (Just like humans, the orangutans have a tendency to smash the screen.) Apps created for children tend to be the most popular, including finger-painting and drum apps. The apes are also said to be fond of nature documentaries by David Attenborough, the popular British broadcaster and naturalist of Planet Earth renown.
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A self-confessed Apple fan, Richard Zimmerman, the executive director of the charity, says that the project was inspired by Steve Jobs when he launched the iPad back in 2010. “I was literally sat in front of my Mac watching his presentation, when I thought, ‘Oh my God! This is perfect for orangutan enrichment,’” says Zimmerman. As their name suggests (orangutan literally translates from Malay and Baha Indonesian to “man of the forest”), the orange or reddish apes are highly intelligent creatures that require mental stimulation to keep from growing bored or depressed.
Scott Engel, a supporter of the Orangutan Outreach charity, brought an iPad to show the orangutans at his local Milwaukee zoo, giving the program the power boost it needed. “Initially the big male orangutan was not interested in the iPad at all, but as he watched the others play with it, he got involved and his whole personality changed as a result,” says Zimmerman. Now twelve zoos in Canada and the U.S. have picked up on the program, and more zoos internationally have also expressed interest. “Most zoo keepers really, really love it,” says Zimmerman. “Anything that helps improve the life of an orangutan is a good thing.” Auckland Zoo in New Zealand is expected to be the next on the list.
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While Apple has expressed interest in the program, nothing has been confirmed – yet. “We are talking to them about it, but it is unofficial at this point,” says Zimmerman, who also says that they plan on sticking with the Apple devices rather than any other tablets. However he does explain that developers have been keen to get involved: “We’re gathering data with different zookeepers in what trends they’ve seen and what’s not working. We’re reporting back to some of these developers to help tweak things. We could soon be getting apps made for apes rather than apps used by apes.”
Zimmerman is also very keen to emphasize the conservation message behind the program. The charity hopes it will raise awareness about the plight of the animals: “It is cute and fun watching them tapping on the iPad, but what is happening to them in the wild is actually horrific,” he says. Orangutans are native to Asia, but can now only be found in Borneo and Sumatra as a result of factors such as deforestation, urban growth and palm oil plantations. Zimmerman believes that the program will help convey how much danger the animals face: “This is a grand opportunity for these orangutans to be ambassadors for their cousins in the wild.” And perhaps soon, with just a few taps on an iPad, they can spread the word themselves.
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