What Happens When You Give an Orangutan an iPad?

A new program at the National Zoo transports the great apes to the 21st century

The Apps for Apes program introduces a new kind of Sistine Chapel moment, as orangutans reach to play with iPads. Photo by Elliott Fabrizio, National Zoo

A new program at the National Zoo that got its start at several other zoos introduces great apes to the many wonders of digital play on Apple iPads. The program began last year after one team member’s family donated an iPad and has since grown to include ten different apps that allow the six orangutans to play music, draw and practice cognitive games, according to the Zoo.

The apps are purely for the animals’ enjoyment, says the great ape keeper Becky Malinsky. “It’s just another form of enrichment for them.” She says it didn’t take much for the orangutans to transition to the touchscreen technology since they had been involved in cognitive studies in the past that utilized the same principles.

In addition to the music and drawing apps, they also have the option to use a mirror application that shows them a reflection of themselves or watch digital fish swim around a koi pond. “Some of them seem mesmerized just sitting there and watching that one,” says Malinsky.

Once each animal is done, the keeper moves on to the next one. One female in particular, says Malinsky, “likes the interaction with the keeper,” pushing the iPad back toward the individual “suggesting it’s their turn to play now.”

“With the iPad, we’re hoping to tap less into the critical thinking outlet and more into a creative outlet,” says animal keeper Erin Stromberg. “If they’re engaged in an app, we’ll keep going. If not, they have the choice to walk away.”

Malinsky hopes to, when wireless capabilities allow, use the FaceTime application to allow the orangutans to communicate with animals in other zoos or even with keepers they used to know but who have moved to new institutions. She says the animals’ interactions with technology show just how similar to humans they can be and further strengthens the case and cause of orangutan conservation worldwide.

Photo by Elliott Fabrizio, National Zoo

Richard Zimmerman of Orangutan Outreach joins National Zoo keeper Erin Stromberg to watch orangutans Bonnie (L) and Batang (R) use Apps for Apes. Photo by Jen Zoon, National Zoo

Everybody wants to play. Photo by Jen Zoon, National Zoo

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.