Smithsonian zoo introduces iPads to orangutans with 'App for Apes' project

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The Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., is utilizing Apple's iPad as a new interactive enrichment tool aimed at cognitive development for the zoo's simians.

In conjunction with 12 other zoos from around the world, the Smithsonian is participating in what has been dubbed "Apps for Apes," a program that leverages the touchscreen interactivity of Apple's iPad to enrich the lives of those apes in captivity, reports DCist.

The National Zoo first joined the initiative when a zookeeper's family member donated an iPad to the Great Ape House. After talking with fellow program participants, the zoo was able to home in on ten apps that seemed to be most conducive to interaction, including a number of music, drawing and game apps. According to a keeper in the video below, one orangutan named Iris is particularly fond of the popular app Koi Pond.

"Apps for Apes is all about giving orangutans in human care choice over their environment," said animal keeper Erin 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."

The zoo is no stranger to implementing high-tech solutions for studying animal behavior. For example, since 1994 the park has been using stationary touchscreen monitors to test orangutan memory. The iPads are being used in a different way, however, and represent a more cognitive approach to interacting with the captive simians.

While the work to meld consumer electronics technology with primate research is still in its infancy, zookeepers hope to one day fully utilize the iPad's potential and connect orangutans across continents using videoconferencing apps like FaceTime.

"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 the apes use the same technology we use every day."

The zoo is currently accepting donations of iTunes gift cards to broaden its app base, as well as direct iPad hardware donations that will be go to zoos across the U.S. Those interested may donate through the site's Giving Tree, while the Orangutan Outreach program handles all iPad hardware gifts.