National Zoo orangutans can play the harp ... on iPad

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Local,DC,Eric P. Newcomer

The orangutans at the National Zoo just might be better at working an iPad than the average grandparent.

The six orangutans at the Great Ape House share an iPad. They aren't allowed to hold it themselves. Otherwise it wouldn't last long.

"They're curious animals and they would dismantle it," said Becky Malinsky, an animal keeper at the zoo.

The orangutans are participating in a program called Apps for Apes. Like humans, apes are happier when they get to make decisions about where they sleep and what they eat. The National Zoo's enclosure tries to maximize those freedoms, and Malinsky said this program gives the orangutans one more set of choices.

They can use the iPad to play steel drums and catch mice. They look at pictures of other animals and watch koi swim in a pond. They can even play a digital harp.

"It involves so many senses -- sight, touch, hearing. It's great enrichment for them," Malinsky said.

Reaching through the metal bars on the side of their cage, the orangutans tap on the device.

"One of our orangutans, Bonnie, she'll play with it for a while," Malinsky said. "She seems to enjoy using the iPad a lot. She's also our best scroller."

Bonnie also likes to take turns with her human counterparts. She'll play with it and then nudge the iPad toward Malinsky, who is holding it for her. Then the keeper will play the drums for a while with Bonnie looking on.

"They can choose to walk away whenever they want. They have a limited attention span just like we do," Malinksy said.

For the most part, the orangutans interact with the iPad at the rear of their cage, making it difficult for visitors to watch them engage with the device. Sometimes, Malinsky said, the keepers will bring the iPad in front of the glass barrier where visitors look on and let the apes use the iPad from there.

The orangutans at the National Zoo took to the iPad with relative ease. They are already experienced at working touch-screen computers that are used in research experiments on the animals.

enewcomer@washingtonexaminer.com

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