By Scott Dixon, Kyodo | 01/12/2013 9:52 AM
TORONTO - While the tech world watched with bated breath as Apple Inc.'s then-CEO unveiled a new tablet computer in 2010, conservationist Richard Zimmerman found himself thinking about how to get the gadget in the hands of apes.
"I had the idea when Steve Jobs gave his presentation of the iPad and I watched him swiping," the Orangutan Outreach executive director told Kyodo News. "I thought 'my god! An orangutan should be doing that!'"
The U.S.-based conservation organization runs orangutan rescue operations on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo, where the endangered animal's habitat is at risk from rapid deforestation.
Started about a year ago, Apps for Apes is a new initiative from the organization to stimulate and enrich the lives of orangutans in zoos using the popular gadget.
Currently in more than 10 zoos worldwide, the program matches donated iPads with zookeepers, who then spend time with orangutans on the device playing games, drawing digital pictures or viewing pictures of other animals.
"Orangutans, especially in the northern zoos during the winter months, are often indoors for a long time and the indoor enclosures aren't too stimulating," Zimmerman said. "It allows them something to do to stay active...new challenges to keep them thinking."
The orangutan, one of the great apes like humans, is one of the most intelligent primates and zookeepers already employ a range of methods to keep them entertained such as non-toxic finger-paints, toys and hiding snacks to encourage exploration.
"We're always trying to find more things for them to occupy their time," Toronto Zoo orangutan keeper Matt Berridge said near the zoo's orangutan enclosure. "This was just kind of handed to us, so why not try it?"
The 36-year-old enjoys the weekly iPad sessions with the zoo's orangutans when he grabs their attention with pieces of fruit and then encourages them to explore the technology on the screen.
He has encountered a few challenges, such as getting the orangutans to use the skin of their fingers, not their fingernail, to properly interact with the touchscreen.
Because the fragile tablet could easily be broken by the strong apes, it is encased in a protective covering and held by keepers through a fence. If the curious animals shattered the device, they could injure themselves with the sharp pieces.
Berridge finds the time spent in close range with the apes valuable for the bond that is made between keeper and animal.
"It also builds trust up for the future so if they did have something that we needed to treat, like a wound, we've built up that trust," he said. "It's another bonus."
For the orangutans at the Toronto Zoo, such as 45-year-old Puppe and her 6-year-old son Budi, playing games, although popular with human beings, gets "boring very quickly." Instead, they spend most of their time watching videos or looking at pictures.
"They are just like a kid watching cartoons," Berridge said. "They really like watching videos of other orangutans."
Beyond using videos and iPad applications originally designed for children, some researchers are working to use past and current studies to make apps specifically designed for the ape.
"Kids and orangutans may look like they're doing the same thing, but they're doing it in a completely different way," York University associate professor Suzanne MacDonald said.
The professor of psychology would like to draw from what is "scientifically known" to make an app just for orangutans, like a music program where a song or genre can be selected with the animal's finger.
MacDonald, who has volunteered with the zoo as a behaviorist for over 20 years, sees touchpad and touchscreen technology as a thought-provoking chance to see how the species thinks.
"Orangutans are quite interested in looking at stuff, figuring things out, taking things apart," she said in her Toronto office. "If we show photos of food to the young ones, they try to eat it because they think it's real."
Besides an opportunity for research, MacDonald sees Apps for Apes as an important chance for scholars and conservationists alike to draw attention to the "unbelievable species."
"Our goals are the same in that we want enrichment, we want something for the animals to do that keeps them active," she said, "We want people to know that orangutans are amazing animals, they have brains that are incredibly complex and we should not have them go extinct."
The possible extinction of the species remains at the forefront of everything the organization does and the expense of taking care of a rescued orangutan in Indonesia, about $3,000 a year, takes priority over buying new iPads.
"If an iPad costs so many hundred dollars, we look at it as that amount of money could go to food or vet care for this many orangutans for a week," program coordinator Colleen Reed said, noting that the organization prefers for iPads to be donated, rather than bought.
For Reed, the tablet can be a way to create awareness among zoo visitors of a species so threatened by illegal logging, poaching and wildfires that fewer than 46,000 remain in the wild in their native Borneo and Sumatra.
Having the "cute orangutan touching the Apple product" may seem like a stunt, but Zimmerman stresses that while their approach is creative, the ultimate goal is sincere.
"The keepers know that it's not a gimmick, they know that the orangutans are doing something incredible and enjoying themselves," the 42 year-old said. "But if that's what it takes to get attention and draw some awareness of the fact that orangutans need help in the wild, that's a fair trade we think."