Smithsonian's National Zoo Orangutans Turn High-Tech with Apps for Apes

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    Photo Credit: Jen Zoon, Smithsonian's National Zoo

    When great ape keepers at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo were deciding how to add more variety and enrichment to their animals’ lives, they turned to Orangutan Outreach and a program that had seen great success in 12 other zoos around the world: Apps for Apes. With the tap of a finger, keepers are introducing the Zoo’s six orangutans to iPads which provide totally unique stimuli. They found that Bonnie likes to bang on the drums, Kyle prefers the piano and Iris is content to listen to the soothing sounds of the koi pond while watching animated fish splash.

    “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 yet another way to engage their sight, touch and hearing senses.”

    The Zoo began participating in the Apps for Apes program last year, when a keeper’s family member donated an iPad to the Great Ape House. Malinsky and fellow animal keeper Erin Stromberg talked with the other program participants to determine which apps were the most popular among orangutans. In the past few months, the Zoo’s repertoire has grown to more than 10 apps, including musical instruments, cognitive games, drawing programs and others. Eventually, the Zoo hopes to connect its orangutans with those at other zoos using video conferencing platforms.

    Enrichment is an integral part of the daily care and quality of life for the species in the Zoo’s collection. Keepers and curators carefully study animal behavior and determine what kinds of enrichment are appropriate for each species and, occasionally, individual animals. They may alter an exhibit; train an animal; introduce new smells, sounds, foods, and objects; or enlist an animal in a research project. Since 1994, the National Zoo’s orangutans have used touch screen monitors as part of a cognitive study that tests orangutan memory, tool use and social learning.

    “Apps for Apes is all about giving orangutans in human care choice over their environment,” said Stromberg. “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.”

    As the world becomes ever more tech savvy, Apps for Apes also helps visitors connect with the orangutans and raise awareness about the challenges these intelligent animals face in the wild.

    “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 them use the same technology we use every day.”

    Native to Indonesia, orangutans live in the tropical rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. Over the past seven decades, humans have cleared land that was originally orangutan territory in order to meet the growing demand for palm oil products, fast-growing pulp wood and food crops leaving orangutans—which are solitary by nature—in competition with one another for space, food and mates. Scientists estimate that in the last 75 years, the number of wild orangutans has decreased by 80 percent. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the Bornean orangutan as endangered and the Sumatran orangutan as critically endangered.

    Fans who want to provide the National Zoo’s apes with additional engaging apps can purchase an iTunes gift card through the Giving Tree on the Zoo’s website. Orangutan Outreach is also accepting iPad donations directly and will distribute the tablets to zoos around the country. Institutions that previously lacked the resources to participate would then be able to offer their orangutans the iPad enrichment experience.

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    Orangutan Outreach’s mission is to protect orangutans in their native habitat while providing care for orphaned and displaced orangutans until they can be returned to their natural environment. They seek to raise funds and promote public awareness of orangutan conservation issues by collaborating with partner organizations around the world.

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