Gotta love this story from Jan Uebelherr of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Primates all over America are discovering the Apple iPad — and that includes Mahal and his surrogate mother, M.J., two of the Milwaukee County Zoo’s orangutans.
The zoo is using four donated iPads, plus another belonging to a volunteer, for enrichment activities that include free apps (finger painting, music) and videos of other animals at the zoo.
Keepers also are considering using Skype, an Internet video chat program, to connect orangutans in other zoos with each other. M.J., for instance, came from a Toledo zoo in 2007 and might check in on the old gang back in Toledo.
Other zoos, including Zoo Atlanta, use touch screens with orangutans, but the Milwaukee County Zoo is the only one in America using iPads. Orangutan Outreach, a nonprofit that works on behalf of the endangered orangutans, is working with zoos on starting up similar programs.
Milwaukee’s iPad project — described as “embryonic” by orangutan keeper Trish Khan — began with an April Fools’ Day joke by The Sun newspaper in Britain. It ran a story about a gorilla who got his hands on a man’s iPad, cranked up the “Angry Birds” game app and caused all sorts of trouble for the iPad owner.
Claire Richard, the primary gorilla keeper at the Milwaukee County Zoo, saw the report and posted an item on Facebook: “I want one of these for Maji (one of the gorillas at the zoo).”
A friend, Zoo Pride volunteer Kim Houk, replied, “How cool would that be; get one for Mahal, too!”
Self-described “friend of the zoo” Scott Engel, a freelance photographer, developer of apps and a big fan of Mahal, saw the note and had a message of his own for Richard:
“I can make this happen.”
Engel donated an iPad of his own, and more followed — including one from a customer at an Apple store who overheard him talking about his idea to bring iPads to great apes at the zoo. A volunteer saw Engel working with M.J. on the iPad and asked if he’d like a couple more, so she donated two brand new iPads.
The gorillas were wary of the new device, and remain so.
“They were all very scared,” said Richard, the primary gorilla keeper. “It’s a different species. Orangutans are curious about everything. Gorillas are afraid of everything.
“Because it’s something new and different, they’re real hesitant to even approach it. Hodari, the youngest one (16), had the most curiosity. … Hodari was able to figure out the finger painting,” Richard said.
“Maji (an older gorilla) just wanted to break it. He couldn’t figure out what the whole thing was, and he just wanted to get hold of it.”
But the inquisitive orangutans were another story.
Mahal’s first look at the iPad was a photo of himself. His reaction: He threw his arms into the air and clapped.
“They were enthralled,” Engel said. “One of the first things we did was take advantage of the built-in camera on the iPad, and turn the camera on them, because they’re used to looking into a mirror and recognizing themselves.”
Engel and the keepers looked for other ways to use the iPad and came up with videos of other animals in the Milwaukee zoo as well as other zoos.
M.J. likes to watch videos of Tommy, a male orangutan who was separated from Mahal and M.J. about a year ago after he became rough with Mahal.
“Mahal loves the penguins,” said Engel, who made a video of them at feeding time. “He just sat there watching them, with his arms folded across his chest. He jumped back when the penguins flapped a wing.”
Much of the iPad use is from outside the glass, but Khan also lets the orangutans touch the screens through a grid on the side of their enclosure. Their long nails impede them from touching the screen, so keepers must hold the iPad at a certain angle.
“We’re finding out they can’t use the whole screen,” Khan said. “We’re problem-solving, as well as the orangutans.”
The orangutans take part in these activities without food rewards — a bonus, Khan said.
“We’re always looking for activities that will engage them without the added calories,” Khan said. “So they’re purely doing it for their own interest. Not for a grape.”
Enrichment activities for primates are defined as anything that will “stimulate natural behavior,” Khan said.
So how does an iPad do that? It’s not exactly something that would be found in the rain forest, the native habit of orangutans.
“We provide enrichment to them all day long that’s man-made enrichment. I mean, that’s what we have — whatever materials you can get that they won’t destroy, things that keep them interested,” Khan said. They wouldn’t have finger paints, wading pools or TV sets — all used as enrichment — in the rain forest either, she noted.
Giving them stimulation that leads to “natural behavior” helps them behave more like great apes.
“This is their environment they’re in now,” Khan said. “Any sort of mental stimulation is eliciting natural behaviors. Great apes are problems solvers by nature. That’s why this sort of technology appeals to me, and appeals to them, because it gives them that opportunity.”