Apps for Apes: An iPad program to entertain captive orangutans

One of the burning questions that animal rights activists might be tempted to ask is: What does a zookeeper do with a bored orangutan?

Well, that question was answered when Michigan-born wildlife activist Richard Zimmerman suggested giving iPads to apathetic apes, and launched Apps for Apes to do just that.

Mr. Zimmerman is a passionate and creative fund raiser who founded the New York-based non-profit organization Orangutan Outreach. The goal of this organization is to fund orangutan conservation in Borneo and to bring attention to the threats facing wild orangutans. Mr. Zimmerman claims to have built a base of global support by utilizing online social networking, and to have raised over a million dollars with “little more than his Mac, his iPhone and his will.”

After having successfully launched an adopt-an-orangutan program which offers donors the opportunity to give a red ape a future “for as little as 30 cents a day,” Mr. Zimmerman came up with the idea of offering to donate iPads to zoos in order to provide captive primates with enriching mental stimulation.

Mr. Zimmerman is a visionary who hopes to see orangutans using touch tablets to listen to music, play games, watch videos, and even to do finger painting. He also believes his idea has great educational potential for rehabilitation programs, which he feels could prepare orangutans for life in the wild by showing them videos of wild orangutan behavior, along with images of predators they should avoid and food they can and cannot eat. He also foresees a future in which orangutans will be able to interact with others of their kind via Skype, perhaps, in some instances, for the first time in their lives.

After announcing the program, Mr. Zimmerman told Macleans magazine that he has a list of about 20 zoos that are waiting to benefit from the program.

Animal behaviorist Suzanne MacDonald of York University has been using touchscreen computers with orangutans at the Toronto Zoo for over 15 years. Dr. McDonald believes that the iPad offers great potential for research into orangutan cognition. She also agrees with Mr. Zimmerman concerning the potential advantages of Internet ape dating. She believes that if potential mates could be introduced to each other via Skype, it would allow zookeepers to see if a pair is compatible before going to the expense of sending an orangutan to another zoo for breeding.

Mr. Zimmerman subsequently approached Apple to raise public awareness of the plight of wild orangutans, and to raise funds through the sale of apps for apes in the Apple store.

Mr. Zimmerman’s idea actually appears to be achieving some modest success. Apps for Apes has been adopted by several zoos around the world, including the Smithsonian, which provides its orangutans with a variety of apps from music to cognitive games. The Toronto Zoo has been working with a digital engineering company to create its own specifically designed orangutans apps. One program that has come out of this collaboration is Orangutapp, which allows apes to select food items from a daily diet menu, a development which is being hailed as a milestone of inter-species communication.