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Orangutans get iPad to play with at Milwaukee zoo

The Apps for Apes program is a hit with the primates. Other zoos plan to follow suit.

December 30, 2011|Deborah Netburn

For the last six months, three orangutans at the Milwaukee County Zoo have had the pleasure of playing with a donated iPad a couple of times a week, and guess what: They love it.

"We show them the iPad, and read them stories or let them have different apps," said Jan Rafert, curator of primates and small mammals at the zoo. "We don't let them hold them, but they can do some of the paint apps by sticking their fingers through the mesh."

The orangutan iPad program, known as Apps for Apes, was started after the gorilla keeper at the zoo mentioned on her Facebook page that she'd like to get some iPads for her gorillas to play with, Rafert explained. It was kind of a joke, but a zoo volunteer took it seriously and donated a used iPad to the zoo. It turned out that the gorillas didn't really enjoy the iPad — "they are more stoic," said Rafert — but the orangutans went wild.

Now the orangutans' keeper, Trish Khan, lets the animals play with the iPad about twice a week. They aren't allowed to hold it because they are so strong that they would probably wind up cracking it in half. Khan holds it up to their cages and allows them to interact with it.

The orangutan conservation group Orangutan Outreach is now involved with the project and is hoping to get Apps for Apes started at other zoos. Richard Zimmerman, executive director of the group, said Zoo Atlanta, the Toronto Zoo and the Phoenix Zoo are waiting to get iPads for their orangutans to play with. The Houston Zoo already has one but has not yet introduced it to the orangutans.

Once the other zoos are on board, Zimmerman said, zookeepers will arrange primate play dates — where orangutans from different zoos can see one another via the tablets.

Nobody has done research on how orangutans interact with iPads, but Zimmerman said that may happen soon. For now, the Apps for Apes program has two main goals: providing stimulation for orangutans, who are easily bored in captivity, and raising awareness of orangutan conservation efforts in Malaysia and Indonesia, where the animals are suffering declining numbers and loss of habitat.

"Seeing the animals with the iPad has had an effect on the zoo visitors," he said. "They have this recognition that these are amazing, cognitive, curious creatures, which gets back to our message: that these are animals that need to be saved."

deborah.netburn@latimes.com

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