Primates go bananas for iPads

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The orangutans at the Milwaukee County Zoo are hooked on iPads after a volunteer donated one.

With the summer blockbuster “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” in theaters, could the world be headed for a real life version of the big screen film?

Orangutans and gorillas at the Milwaukee County Zoo have found a new source of entertainment – the Apple iPad. They are currently the only primates in the country to use the technology.

Orangutans M.J. and Mahal, as well as four gorillas, have been using iPads for approximately three months, with the help of caretakers and zoo volunteers.

Trish Khan, orangutan caretaker at the Milwaukee County Zoo, said the idea began when an April Fools’ Day article about a gorilla using an iPad to play the game app “Angry Birds” was posted to Facebook. After making its way onto a few employees’ pages, zoo volunteer Scott Engel saw the article and decided to donate his original iPad.

After Engel’s and other private donations, the zoo now has four iPads specifically for primate use.

According to Khan, the apes have been using simple iPad apps such as finger painting and tap drums, as well as viewing photographs and videos of other orangutans.

“We are using them (with the orangutans) a few different ways,” Khan said. “One of the volunteers is coming in a couple of times a week, and stands on the public side of the glass windows and shows them various images and video. I work with them physically with the iPad, where I stand (with them) and they can touch the screen.”

While the iPads have been used for gathering data and observing how the primates react to the device, their main purpose is entertainment and enrichment for the animals.

Guests of the zoo have been able to watch as volunteers use iPads with the primates since the program started. Khan said the public’s reaction has been positive because they are able to identify with the animals using technology.

“The public can respond to them directly because we’ve all been exposed to this kind of technology and how intriguing it can be,” Khan said. “It’s something that the visitor can totally relate to.”

Kelly Stapleton, a junior in the College of Education and former zoo employee, witnessed the animals using the iPads and agreed that zoo-goers were impressed.

“(The orangutans) definitely looked really engaged by it,” Stapleton said. “The public could see it happen and there was always a big crowd around them.”

Orangutan Outreach, an orangutan conservation society, began its Apps for Apes project around the same time M.J. and Mahal began using the iPads in Milwaukee, and has been working closely with caretakers at the Milwaukee zoo.

The Apps for Apes project hopes to bring iPads to other primates in zoos around the country, including Phoenix, Atlanta and Tampa, Fla.

“We want to get the individual orangutans using them first,” said Richard Zimmerman, executive director of Orangutan Outreach. “I’m sure research may come out of it, but the main objective is enrichment for the animals.”

Zimmerman said the group is looking for iPads to be donated to the project, like the ones at the Milwaukee zoo, because all funds gathered by Orangutan Outreach go to conservation efforts.

“That’s really the main objective behind (the organization)––conservation,” Zimmerman said.

With the use of photos and video, Zimmerman and animal caretakers at the Milwaukee County Zoo want to make connections with primates at other zoos across the country, so the animals can “meet” others they haven’t seen before, as well as relatives in other zoos.

Zimmerman hopes that all of the media attention on the project, as well as public interest in primates, will get people interested in primate conservation and research.

“It really all came together serendipitously,” Zimmerman said. “But the timing right now, with ‘Planet of the Apes,’ added a whole new dimension to the project.”