Going Ape For iPads

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Friday, May 11, 2012 - 2:05pm

Zoo communicates with orangutans using iPads.

The iPad craze has spread to Miami's Jungle Island, where all six of the zoo's orangutans use the digital device to draw with their fingers and play picture games.

Jungle Island's orangutan caregiver, Linda Jacobs, has been training the great apes to communicate with humans using an iPad for one year.

The youngest of the clan are enjoying it the most, while 8-year-old fraternal twins Peanut and Pumpkin are very engaged during their training sessions, according to Jacobs.

The clan's elders show no interest in the handheld computer tablet, however.

The orangutans at Jungle Island apparently are just like people when it comes to technology.

The park is one of several zoos experimenting with computers and apes, letting its six orangutans use an iPad to communicate and as part of a mental stimulus program.

Jacobs, who oversees the program, hopes the devices will eventually help bridge the gap between humans and the endangered apes.

"Our young ones pick up on it. They understand it. It's like, 'Oh I get this,'" Jacobs said. "Our two older ones, they just are not interested. I think they just figure, `I've gotten along just fine in this world without this communication-skill here and the iPad, and I don't need a computer.'"

Jacobs said she began letting the orangutans use iPads last summer, based on the suggestion of someone who had used the devices with dolphins.

The software was originally designed for humans with autism and the screen displays pictures of various objects.

A trainer then names one of the objects, and the ape presses the corresponding button.

The devices have been a great addition to the enrichment programs Jungle Island already does with the orangutans, Jacobs said.

Keepers have long used sign language to communicate with them.

Using their hands, the orangutans can respond to simple questions, identify objects and express their wants or needs.

The apes can also identify body parts, helping the trainers care for them and even give them shots.

"We're able to really monitor their health on a daily basis," Jacobs said of the need for communication with the orangutans. "We can do daily checks. If somebody's not feeling well, we know it immediately."

While Jacobs and other trainers have developed strong relationships with the orangutans, the iPad and other touchscreen computers offer an opportunity for them to communicate with people not trained in their sign language.

"It would just be such a wonderful bridge to have," Jacobs said. "So that other people could really appreciate them."

Jacobs, who has worked with orangutans for 15 years, said she believes they understand most of her conversations with them.

The goal for Jungle Island is to enable the orangutans eventually communicate with visitors on a big touch screen.

 

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