Apps for Apes: KC’s orangutans enter the digital age

People struggling to keep up with technology will not be comforted to know that even apes are now using iPads.

The orangutans at the Kansas City Zoo — with their thick fingers — are using the touch screens to make music and drawings, watch videos and play very simple games.

It’s part of a program to stimulate the minds of what may be the most intelligent species of apes.

“They seem to like the sounds or the drawings,” said Stacia Pieroni, animal area supervisor at the zoo. “They really like watching the neon colors. That’s just an assumption on our part, but they tend to lean toward things like that.”

A favorite of a female named Jill is a game in which koi swimming in a pond quickly dart away when she presses her finger on them. On a recent day, a younger female named Kalijon was touching pictures of wild animals, which produced the sounds that they make.

It’s not an everyday activity, and not every orangutan is always interested.

But “sometimes they’ll just sit there and be totally into it,” Pieroni said.

A nonprofit conservation group called Orangutan Outreach started the program, called Apps for Apes. The organization hopes that, in addition to enriching the lives of these animals in captivity, it will help people understand how intelligent they are and why it is important to protect them from extinction.

Orangutans live in Borneo and Sumatra and are endangered. The primary threat is loss of rainforest habitat, which is being clear-cut to make room for oil palm plantations.

About 20 zoos in North America and New Zealand are participating in Apps for Apes, including the National Zoo in Washington.

Orangutan Outreach donated two iPads to the Kansas City Zoo, and a local company donated a third one. The keepers here started the program this autumn and have downloaded about 20 apps so far, but many more are available.

There are apps that allow the apes to tap on bongos or to strum a xylophone or a piano keyboard.

Another favorite is one that produces colorful, kinetic patterns as their finger moves across the screen. An app produced by National Geographic features a selection of wildlife videos, including orangutans.

“Right now they’re just at the beginning stages,” Pieroni said. “We will start an app for them and if they’re interested we’ll let them play for a while. If they’re disinterested we’ll pick another one. They’re just like you and me. They each have their personal preferences.”

The Kansas City Zoo has two groupings of Borneo orangutans. One includes the male Rufus, female Jill and 4-year-old Kalijon. The other includes the male Berani, female T.K. and female Josie.

Kansas City recently received another female named Intan, who was sent here from another zoo for potential mating with Rufus.

The keepers do not hand the iPads directly over to the apes.

“Orangs are pretty curious but they’re also very destructive, so it wouldn’t take them too long to break them,” said Sean Putney, director of living collections at the zoo.

Instead, the keepers hold the tablets for them outside the bars of their cage. The animals, all of which are trained to stick their arms out for flu shots or blood draws, extend their fingers to manipulate the screen.

It takes some practice.

“Their fingernails would hit the screen, and that doesn’t work,” Putney said. “It has to be the actual tips of the fingers. That’s something that we’ve been trying to teach them.”

Recently, Rufus was stabbing his finger too roughly at the pad, prompting Pieroni to pull it away.

The old ape then took a drink and squirted a stream of water at her through his teeth, a common demonstration among orangutans.

“He’s mad at me,” Pieroni said.

The keepers also are experimenting with the iPad’s camera feature. Orangutans are believed to be self-aware, and the ones at the Kansas City Zoo have been exposed to mirrors. Jill seems to recognize her “selfie” video on the iPad screen.

Potentially, orangutans here could be linked via Skype with apes at other zoos.

The keepers say the females are generally more interested in the iPads than the males, but then there are days when Berani is the only one who wants to play.

Zoo officials say they may at some point include demonstrations of the apes using the iPads with scheduled keeper chats so visitors can get a chance to watch. In the meantime, they are experimenting with introducing the chimpanzees to tablet technology.

But for now, the focus is on orangutans.

“I think we enjoy it as much as they do,” Pieroni said of the human staff. “It’s fun to come up with new apps for them and try to figure out what they like.

“As with any interaction with the orangs, it’s really rewarding to see them get a concept and start going with it. It makes you feel good.”