After a few months of training, Puppe is getting the hang of the iPad, alternately kissing the screen or pressing her knuckles to it. (She can’t use her fingers because her nails get in the way.) Still, in a demo at the Toronto Zoo last Thursday, the 45-year-old orangutan and her son, Budi, were only allowed to touch the gadget through a fence. Given the chance, explained orangutan keeper Matt Berridge, they might smash it to pieces.
Since reports of inhumane conditions at Marineland emerged earlier this month, Torontonians have shown heightened concern about the treatment of captive animals. The Toronto Zoo has had its own problems, recently losing its international accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for sendings its African elephants to a non-AZA accredited California sanctuary. So last Thursday was an ideal time to officially unveil its iPads-for-orangutans initiative.
Thanks to an anonymous donation to the Apps for Apes program, which has distributed iPads to primates around the world, Toronto’s orangutans now have weekly tablet-computing sessions.
But during last week’s demonstration, Puppe and Budi seemed distracted. Despite being coaxed with treats, they often stopped to look around, and after the iPad demo, Budi quickly returned to climbing his play structure and burying himself under cardboard, while Puppe preferred to drag around a big leaf.
They might be more enthusiastic had they known the project’s potential. Berridge said it’s going slower than he expected, but that with more training, the apes could use the iPad for communication, letting zookeepers know which enclosure they want to be in, or who they want to hang out with on a given day, ultimately giving them much more control over their lives. “At first, they were really interested in just pulling the protective cover off,” he said. Recently, however, they’ve shown more interest in touching the screen, and they get competitive at times, with adults shoving younger ones out of the way for access to the gadget.
Usually they go for the kind of apps that toddlers like—doodling, memory games, counting. Most of all, said Berridge, they enjoy videos of nature scenes.