Orangutans and gorillas go bananas for tablet computers

And offer zoo researchers insight into their brains

There’s an ape for that

Shutterstock; Photograph by Jessica Darmanin; Photo Illustration by Levi Nicholson

There’s an ape for that
Shutterstock; Photograph by Jessica Darmanin; Photo Illustration by Levi Nicholson

The three orangutans at the Milwaukee County Zoo have a new toy. Once a week, zookeeper Trish Khan brings out an old iPad for them to play with. “I downloaded a bunch of apps I thought might interest them,” she says. One favourite is Doodle Buddy, a fingerpainting program; they also like apps that turn the iPad into an instrument that can be tapped like a drum or strummed like a guitar. “They love to watch videos,” she says. The adult female, MJ, “loves David Attenborough,” who makes natural history films. Khan carefully holds up the iPad instead of handing it over; the ape could easily break it in half.

Milwaukee’s project has been such a hit that zoos across North America, including Toronto, are clamouring to get some. “We’ve got about 20 zoos waiting,” says Richard Zimmerman, director of the non-profit Orangutan Outreach, which is running a campaign called Apps for Apes that aims to get more tablet computers to zoos. Eventually orangutans in different zoos will be able to visit each other via Skype or FaceTime—maybe even start Internet dating. “Orangutans have to move zoos for mating,” says York University’s Suzanne MacDonald, who studies animal behaviour and cognition. “It would be really cool if they could meet over the Internet first and see if they got along, or if they’re terrified of each other.”

Milwaukee got its first iPad almost by accident. “Our gorilla keeper was on Facebook and saw a picture of a gorilla on an iPad,” Khan says. “She commented, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I could get my gorillas an iPad?’ So a gentleman who’d just bought a brand new one gave his older one to the gorillas.” The zoo now has four split between gorillas and orangutans, but orangutans seem to prefer them. “Gorillas have a different way of interacting,” MacDonald says. “They look at things sideways, because it’s a threat to look at it directly. Orangutans like to look directly at things and figure them out.”

MacDonald has been using touchscreen computers with the Toronto Zoo’s orangutans for more than 15 years; she uses a computer inside a wooden box, so the apes don’t break the machine or turn it off.

Computers are ideal for studies because they’re objective. “If a human is there to judge, sometimes we want the animal to succeed,” which skews the data. Working with the Toronto Zoo’s six orangutans, she’s trying to learn how other primates view the world. “Orangutans can use computers, so we can ask them questions about how things look to a different brain. It’s hard to do that with an antelope.”

In different experiments, MacDonald and her team are looking into whether an orangutan can tell the difference between photos of a gorilla, a human, and another orangutan; how good their eyesight is; and even whether they enjoy listening to music. MacDonald is about to start a new experiment where she’ll expose them to different kinds of music—rock, hip hop, classical, even Tibetan throat singing—to see if they have a preference. Using the touchscreen computer, orangutans will be able to keep playing a song if they like it, or turn it off if they don’t.

When MacDonald first got the touchscreen, “we assumed they’d use their fingers,” she says, “but we showed the young adolescent male a picture of an adult male orangutan, and he turned his back on it. He went away, found a stick, came back, and touched the screen with a stick, not with his finger. All the other orangutans saw this, and they wanted to do it like that too.”

The iPad has all sorts of potential for research. “We want to continue with these experiments, and start on some novel ones, like hooking up orangutans at different zoos,” MacDonald says. “We don’t know for sure if they’ll recognize each other over Skype.” Mahal, the youngest orangutan in Milwaukee, loves to watch video of other young orangutans.

Once more zoos have orangutan-proofed iPads, the idea is to let them choose videos, pictures to look at, and apps. “It’s educational for the public, too,” Khan says, “to see some of their intelligence come out. Hopefully it will create more interest in trying to save the species.”