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Apes using iPads at Milwaukee County Zoo

mahal01, nws, lynn, 2.-Volunteer Scott Engel holds up an ipad for Orangutan M.J. to use as one of their "enrichment activities." at the Milwaukee County Zoo Tuesday August 30, 2011. Photo by Tom Lynn/TLYNN@JOURNALSENTINEL.COM Photo: Image by Tom Lynn

Apes using iPads at Milwaukee County Zoo

By Jesse Ritka. CREATED Aug 30, 2011

Click here for the Apps for Apes link

MILWAUKEE - What started out as an April fool’s joke has turned into a high tech enrichment activity at the Milwaukee County Zoo.  Scott Engel is a zoo volunteer who has been bringing technology into 4-year old Orangutan Mahal’s life since April.  "I'll just put it out here in case Mahal wants to come on over and watch it . . . like this."

Engel shows Mahal and her suragate mother MJ videos of themselves along with other apes they are familiar with.  "That got his attention and that got her attention too."

Volunteers and zoo keepers have been trying to figure out ways to keep the orangutans’ minds engaged, "When you put them in captivity and you take away that natural stimulation, you get a very bored animal." Zookeeper Trish Khan tells TODAY’S TMJ4’s Jesse Ritka.

But thanks to the five privately donated iPads, the primates have technology to explore instead of the jungle.

Engel donated the first iPad and now comes to the zoo regularly to show the orangutans videos and different iPad apps until they get bored. “They pretty much call the shots; I'm here just for the ride.”

So far, the orangutans are mainly watching videos and starting to use the touch screen to finger paint and play music on the iPad, but Khan is being careful when it comes to letting the primates actually hold the iPads. “Obviously they're incredibly strong and very curious, probably more curious about how the iPad works and it would take them two seconds to snap it.”

But the orangutans don’t seem to mind and they aren’t the only ones entranced by the iPad activity.  Nine year-old Olivia Gnadt loved the interaction she witnessed at the zoo, "I think it was funny because I've never seen a monkey playing with an iPad."

Eight year-old Libby Anderson also loved watching Mahal interact with the iPad, “After the guy left, he was knocking on the door to get his attention because he liked it, and he was smiling, it was funny to see."

Zookeepers see the iPad as an opportunity to educate visitors about the endangered species.  "They can tell the incredible intelligence of these species that we work with, they're not just animals sitting behind glass, they're worth protecting, they're worth saving," says Khan.

The iPad interaction is still in the beginning phases as the zoo, but Khan says the possibilities with the technology are endless, they’ve already started thinking up future ideas, “Perhaps skype with another orangutan in another institution or have a bunch of icons where they could choose who they watch or talk to at the time.  As technology advances people get more interested in this, come forward and say hey we can help you design an app for this.”

So there may soon be an app for the apes.

Jesse Ritka

Jesse Ritka

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Jesse Ritka joined TODAY’S TMJ4 and Storm Team 4 in February 2011 as the “Live at Daybreak” weekend meteorologist. Growing up in Prior Lake, Minnesota, Jesse has always been fascinated by storms.