It’s early morning, and the chimpanzees are gearing up for another day at the Houston Zoo.They munch a breakfast of raw cabbage, scamper, skirmish, joust with rope swings and pause to peer through a window into the near-empty visitor’s centre.
In a small cage a few feet away, a strange new dawn is breaking.
There, Willie, his face inches from the glowing screen of an Apple iPad, is engrossed in the gyrations of an animated goldfish. He taps the screen with a hairy finger, and the fish disintegrates.
Expressionless, Willie waits and the game begins again.
A digital revolution is sweeping the ape house, and now its denizens, formerly preoccupied with classic chimpish activities, are turning their attention to computer offerings originally developed for human toddlers.
“Chimps and orangutans and other apes are very intelligent,” said chimp keeper Helen Boostrom. “In the wild, the problems they must solve are finding food and shelter. They don’t have to do that at the zoo. This is enrichment. It helps them use their minds.”
Children and apes exhibit similar responses to the miracles on the screen, said zoo spokesman Brian Hill.
“You see the same reaction on their faces when they solve a problem and get something right,” he said.
First in Texas
Houston is the first Texas zoo to participate in “Apps for Apes,” a program developed by the New York-based primate advocacy group Orangutan Outreach. The effort was pioneered at zoos in Milwaukee and Toronto.
Orangutan Outreach’s executive director, Richard Zimmerman, said the program soon will be expanded to an additional 12 zoos.
“Really, with the iPad, we’re moving into new territory,” he said. “Chimpanzees and orangutans are very curious. They love new things.”
Chimps, Boostrom explained, are noisy animals and enjoy the iPad’s more raucous apps.
Willie is riveted by a musical app in which he can generate sounds by playing virtual drums, guitars, pianos and saxophones. Willie also enjoys manipulating blobs of virtual paint — great apes can see colour — in an artistic game, and ruminating over the sound-generating illustrations in an interactive version of “Alice in Wonderland.”
Boostrom said Willie, at age 8 still a juvenile, “gets distracted and bored really fast.”
Sessions for Willie typically can last only a few minutes and generally are conducted in the morning before visitors begin to arrive. Orangutans tend to be more reflective.
“They will spend what seems like forever to try to figure things out,” she said.
Typically, each chimp and orangutan gets computer time twice a month.
Like their human cousins, the zoo’s chimps and orangutans are mesmerized by computer programs about themselves. Boostrom said iPad videos of other apes or on-screen magazines featuring ape photos are especially intriguing.
“They aren’t very interested in pictures of buildings or architecture,” she said.
Keeping it interesting
A Texas A&M University master’s degree candidate who is writing her thesis on how differing ape species, genders and ages relate to the iPad programs, Boostrom said the computers are only one way the zoo tries to keep the ape habitat interesting.
“For the chimps, we have lovely termite mounds. We make puzzle feeders filled with something that’s healthy but extra delicious and let them figure out how to get the food,” she said. “We change their props, their ropes and branches. We play different noises.”
In coming months, Boostrom said, the Houston park will explore establishing connections with other zoos to allow local primates to visit face-to-face online with their cross-continent peers via Skype.
For Willie, the youngest of the zoo’s 11 chimps, such an arrangement would permit long-range socializing with animals his own age. In a larger sense, Boostrom said, it would allow potential breeding partners to size each other up at a safe distance.
“We’d be able to see what their reaction is rather than waiting until they’re already there,” she said.
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