At National Zoo, even orangutans have latest high-tech gadgets

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 1, 2013 

— They swipe, tap and scroll with ease.

Orangutans at the National Zoo have mastered the iPad so well, in fact, that they’ve developed favorite apps.

Kyle, a 16-year-old male, opts for hitting notes on the piano app while glancing around his environment, hay dangling out of his mouth. Bonnie, a 36-year-old female, pokes at cymbals on the drum app. Iris, who’s 25, stares wide-eyed at the calm koi pond app.

The National Zoo is the 13th zoo worldwide to join Apps for Apes, started by the larger nonprofit organization Orangutan Outreach to raise awareness of orangutans’ endangerment.

Orangutans are native to the tropical rain forests of Indonesia, which has seen deforestation increase over the past 70 years. Some experts fear that the large apes might be extinct in 10 years.

"The situation in the wild is brutal," said Richard Zimmerman, founder and director of New York-based Orangutan Outreach. "That’s their home. They need that forest to live in."

Zimmerman hopes that the unconventional nature of orangutans using iPads will help attract more attention to his group’s cause. The program, which began in 2011, sends donations to the Apps for Apes program directly to conservation efforts, unless they’re specifically marked otherwise.

Becky Malinsky, a National Zoo animal keeper, said the orangutans had performed particularly well with the transition to the iPad since the zoo had used touch-screen computers for the past 20 years.

What did take a bit of time, she said, was transitioning from the techniques used with touch-screen computers to that of the iPad. Orangutans can’t use their fingernails to navigate the iPad as they could with the computers; they had to learn to develop pressure on the pads of their fingers for scrolling and swiping.

Orangutans’ physical enrichment is still dependent on the zookeepers. They’re required to hold the iPads for the orangutans to prevent the apes from taking them apart and ingesting any small pieces, Zimmerman said. Right now, the zoo has six orangutans and one iPad.

The orangutans have used paint and music apps, and Malinsky said the zoo was hoping to teach them to use FaceTime video calling to communicate with other apes.

Orangutans and humans share many similarities when experiencing technology, said Suzanne MacDonald, an associate professor of psychology at York University in Toronto who specializes in animal science. Orangutans see images the same way humans do, she said, though the apes may interpret them differently.

Zimmerman remembers watching Bonnie, the orangutan who loves the drum app, learn to use the tablet. Watching her use an iPad is much like helping children play with toys, Zimmerman said – her face lit up in the same way.

Malinsky said she hoped that through the program, more people saw these commonalities between orangutans and humans and became more inclined to help protect them.

“They’re amazing animals worth saving,” she said.

Email: braghavendran@mcclatchydc.com

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