Since Apple launched the iPad, it’s become integrated into our daily lives. It's not merely a communication or entertainment tool – the iPad is used by commercial pilots to access flight plans and cut down on paper, by enterprises (such Ford where salesmen use sales apps) and in education to encourage interactive learning.

The latest creative use of the iPad is to study animal behaviour in orangutans. The Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington is one of 12 zoos around the world that have joined a program called 'Apps for Apes', which aims to enrich the lives of captive primates by offering them fun activities using old, donated iPads.

For two short periods every week, zookeepers hold up iPads and the orangutans reach through enclosure bars to play cognitive games, drawing programs, musical instruments and even watch TV programs with the help of simple gestures.

"Apps for Apes fits perfectly in this new era of zoo keeping," said Becky Malinsky, great ape keeper at the National Zoo. "It's about changing up the day-to-day lives of our animals. We already vary their food, toys and social interactions every day, but the iPad offers another way to engage their sight, touch and hearing."

"Apps for Apes is all about giving orangutans in human care choice over their environment," said Erin Stromberg, another animal keeper at the Smithsonian National Zoo. "With the iPad, we're hoping to tap less into the critical-thinking outlet and more into a creative outlet. If they're engaged in an app, we'll keep going. If not, they have the choice to walk away."

Spreading the message

The zoos are also working together with animal charity Orangutan Outreach to raise awareness and the funds to protect these intelligent apes from extinction.

"Primarily, we want the Apps for Apes program to help people understand why we need to protect wild orangutans from extinction," said Richard Zimmerman, founding director of Orangutan Outreach. "We do that when we show Zoo visitors how similar humans and apes are, be it through observation, talking with wildlife experts or seeing the apes use the same technology we use every day."

"The original idea came literally when Steve Jobs gave his opening presentation introducing the iPad," Zimmerman told the BBC in an interview.

"Independently, one of our supporters in Milwaukee was at the zoo showing the orangutan his iPad, and they were fascinated by it. We started to put things together."

High-tech primate research

Eventually, Zimmerman hopes to be able to gain enough iPads and improve Wi-Fi capabilities so that the orangutans can connect across continents to other zoos using videoconferencing apps like FaceTime.

Another idea is to build a reinforced iPad that is suitable for the apes to take into their enclosures independently, or fix the device to a wall, where it can be hooked up to a projector for zoo visitors to be able to see the animals’ interactions with the tablets.

Some developers are also in talks with the charity, interested in designing apps for the orangutans using design techniques like those used in children’s software.

The Smithsonian National Zoo is currently accepting donations of iTunes gift cards to broaden its app base via their Giving Tree, while Orangutan Outreach is handling donations of iPad hardware. 

Image credit: Elliott Fabrizio, Smithsonian's National Zoo


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