Iris, an orangutan at the National Zoo, likes to use an iPad to watch animated fish swim in a virtual koi pond. (Elliott Fabrizio/National Zoo)
National Zoo apes use iPad apps

Orangutans at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo are now using iPads to keep themselves occupied.

“It’s about changing up the day-to-day lives of our animals,” Becky Malinsky, a keeper at the zoo, said in a statement. “We already vary their food, toys and social interactions every day, but the iPad offers another way to engage their sight, touch and hearing.”

So far, the apes are using 10 different apps, including cognitive games, drawing programs and ones that feature virtual musical instruments. According to their keepers, some of the orangutans are already showing their preferences — 36-year-old Bonnie hits the drums, 16-year-old Kyle likes to play the piano and 25-year-old Iris enjoys watching animated fish swim in a virtual koi pond on the screen.

The iPads were made available through Apps for Apes, an initiative from Orangutan Outreach, a conservation organization that has also provided tablet devices for primates in 12 other zoos.

“Primarily, we want the Apps for Apes program to help people understand why we need to protect wild orangutans from extinction,” Richard Zimmerman, founding director of Orangutan Outreach, said in a statement. “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.”

Orangutans are among humans’ closest living relatives, and there are only a few tens of thousands of them left in the wild. They are found in the Sumatran rain forests, where they are critically endangered, and the Borneo rain forests, where they are endangered.


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