Jan 052012

Turns out we aren’t that different from other apes after all.

Our primate cousins at a handful of zoos love to use iPads to combat boredom just as much as humans. Zookeepers say that the device is perfect for orangutans, and many have been taking part in guided touchscreen interactions with all sorts of apps, including music, games, movies, cartoons, art, painting, drawing, photos and videos. The orangutans have been playing with the iPads for the past several months, and now a U.S. charity is hoping to round up more of the tablets so the apes can Skype with orangutans at other zoos.

“They like many of the free apps that I think children would like – they like the free apps where you can fingerpaint, they like the apps where you can use the drums,” says Trish Khan, Milwaukee County Zoo’s orangutan keeper.

She adds that some of the orangutans’ interest in the slates isn’t that far off from how humans might use them. For example, she says that four-year-old male Mahal likes using video apps, primarily to watch footage recorded of himself, while MJ, a 31-year-old female, enjoys watching video of male orangutans.

The iPads help provide a little extra enrichment, physical and mental stimulation for the apes living in captivity. Zoo Atlanta and the Smithsonian National Zoo are among the other facilities that have demonstrated apes’ skills with a touchscreen.

Now that the apes in Milwaukee have had several months to become familiar with the iPads, the U.S.-based charity Orangutan Outreach would like to go one step further, turning on WiFi on the tablets to allow the apes to watch and Skype with their compatriots at other zoos, sort of like a pixelized primate pen pal program.

The group’s Richard Zimmerman told the BBC they’re not yet comfortable just handing the tablets over to the apes, even with a protective cover.

“As soon as we hand them over to the orangutans, we figure the lifespan could be as little as 15 seconds – whether they meticulously take them apart or just snap them in half.”

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