The 8-year-old twins love their iPad.
They draw, play games and expand their vocabulary. Their family's
teenagers also like the hand-held computer tablets, too, but the clan's
elders show no interest.
The orangutans at
Miami's Jungle Island apparently are just like people when it comes to
technology. The park is one of several zoos experimenting with computers
and apes, letting its six orangutans use an iPad to communicate and as
part of a mental stimulus program. Linda Jacobs, who oversees the
program, hopes the devices will eventually help bridge the gap between
humans and the endangered apes.
"Our young ones
pick up on it. They understand it. It's like, 'Oh, I get this,'" Jacobs
said. "Our two older ones, they just are not interested. I think they
just figure, 'I've gotten along just fine in this world without this
communication-skill here and the iPad, and I don't need a computer.'"
Jacobs said she began letting the orangutans use iPads
last summer, based on the suggestion of someone who had used the
devices with dolphins. The software was originally designed for humans
with autism and the screen displays pictures of various objects. A
trainer then names one of the objects, and the ape presses the
The devices have been a
great addition to the enrichment programs Jungle Island already does
with the orangutans, Jacobs said. Keepers have long used sign language
to communicate with them. Using their hands, the orangutans can respond
to simple questions, identify objects and express their wants or needs.
The apes can also identify body parts, helping the trainers care for
them and even give them shots.
"We're able to
really monitor their health on a daily basis," Jacobs said of the need
for communication with the orangutans. "We can do daily checks. If
somebody's not feeling well, we know it immediately."
While Jacobs and other trainers have developed strong
relationships with the orangutans, the iPad and other touchscreen
computers offer an opportunity for them to communicate with people not
trained in their sign language.
"It would just
be such a wonderful bridge to have," Jacobs said. "So that other people
could really appreciate them."
Orangutans are extremely intelligent but limited by their physical inability to talk, she said.
"They are sort of trapped in those bodies," Jacobs
said. "They have the intelligence that they need to communicate, but
they don't have the right equipment, because they don't have voice boxes
or vocal chords. So this gives them a way to let us know what they
know, what they are capable of, what they would like to have."
Other zoos and nature parks are doing similar work.
Richard Zimmerman, executive director of Orangutan
Outreach, said he's building an "Apps For Apes" program with old,
donated iPads at facilities throughout North America, though Jungle
Island isn't part of that group. Orangutan Outreach started working with
the Milwaukee County Zoo and then expanded to zoos in Atlanta, Salt
Lake City, Toronto, Houston and elsewhere. They're hoping to use a
video-conferencing program to reconnect orangutans with friends and
family members who have been transferred to other zoos, he said.
"We're putting together what we're calling primate
playdates or red ape rendezvous, which is to say connecting the
orangutans in different facilities," Zimmerman said. "We're looking at a
When it comes to orangutans,
the iPad itself has limitations. First, the relatively small screen
causes orangutans to hit the wrong buttons sometimes. Also, the
touchscreen won't register if they try to use their fingernails. Most
importantly, the devices are just too fragile to actually hand over to
the apes — the trainers must hold them.
gave them the iPad, I could just basically hand them US$600 and say, 'Go
have fun,'" Jacobs said. "So until we come up with a better screen or a
better case, I'm going to hold onto the iPad."
If Jacobs gets her way, a more secure interface might not be far off.
The long-term plan is to set up a larger, orangutan-proof screen in the
holding area, along with another screen outside for guests. They would
ask the orangutans questions and the apes could respond.
"It's really just a matter of getting the technology and
equipment here," Jacobs said. "There's not a doubt in my mind that they
could do it and would be marvelous at it, and I think the public would
absolutely love it."
It's important to note that
training the orangutans isn't done to entertain Jungle Island workers
or guests. Because the animals are so intelligent, Jacobs said their
minds must be kept active to prevent them from getting bored or
depressed. The challenge is making the enrichment activities enjoyable.
"They need a lot of stimulation," Jacobs said. "Training isn't mandatory, but they love it."
Scientist and conservationist Birute Mary Galdikas,
founder of Orangutan Foundation International, said orangutans are among
the most intelligent animals. Orangutans in the wild, where Galdikas
has studied the apes for more than four decades, routinely use tools to
scratch themselves, swat insects and create simple shelters. In
captivity, Galdikas said, orangutans have demonstrated remarkable
creative-thinking skills, specifically in their ability to escape
"Anything that Jungle Island can do
to help their orangutans while away the day is to be commended,"
Galdikas said. "IPads seem to work for humans. It's not surprising that
orangutans, who share 97 percent of their genetic material with humans,
like them, too." (nvn)