Apes at the Smithsonian's National Zoo have it good. The living conditions are immaculate and the food supply never dries up. And now they have iPads too. Apple’s tablet is hard to afford for most human beings, but that hasn’t stopped the National Zoo from initiating the Orangutan Outreach and Apps for Apes programmes, bringing iPads to the primates.

The National Zoo is only one of 12 other zoos that are taking part in the Apps for Apes program. The Smithsonian participation began last year with a single donated iPad. The slates run over ten apps that are known to be popular among orangutans – applications that include brain games, instruments, drawing apps, and more. The goal of the programme is eventually get the apes to have Facetime sessions with each other. The zoo’s ape keepers are regularly in touch with other participating zoos to determine which apps the animals are responding to most.

Apes at the Smithsonian's National Zoo use iPads (image credit: Elliott Fabrizio; via: Smithsonian Institution)

Apes at the Smithsonian's National Zoo use iPads (image credit: Elliott Fabrizio; via: Smithsonian Institution)

While it might seem like an excess, the zoo believes that changing the everyday lives of animals is important. Becky Malinksy, an ape keeper at the zoo, said, “Apps for Apes fits perfectly in this new era of zoo keeping. 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 another way to engage their sight, touch, and hearing.

The Smithsonian’s website states, “Scientists estimate that in the past 75 years, the number of wild orangutans has decreased by 80 percent. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the Bornean orangutan as endangered and the Sumatran orangutan as critically endangered.

The ape keepers are finding that the iPad exercise is providing the apes with a unique stimuli. Bonnie, a 36-year-old ape, likes to bang on virtual drums, while 16-year-old Kyle prefers piano. Iris, a 25-year-old ape, loves listening to the calming sounds of a koi pond and delights in watching animated fish splash.


The animal lovers amongst you who would like to contribute to the zoo’s initiative can can donate iPads to Orangutan Outreach. They can also donate iTunes gift cards so that the National Zoo can purchase more apps that keep their apes happy. Donated iPads are sent to zoos that cannot afford or acquire iPads, but would like to participate in the programme.

The use of touchscreens by apes is not a new exercise. The zoo’s staff have studied animal behaviour over the years and understood what kind of enrichment is appropriate for each species and, occasionally, individual animals. Since 1994, the National Zoo’s orangutans have used touchscreen monitors as part of a cognitive study that tests orangutan memory, tool use and social learning. Besides using touchscreens, animals are trained about new smells, sounds, foods and objects.

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