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Apps for Apes Point the Way to a Happier Life

by Meredith Mullins on February 28, 2013

Three orangutans making choices about apps for apes to live a happier life

What should we do today?
© Thinkstock

Making Choices Count

“What do you want to do today?”

“Dunno. How about you?”

“We could hang around for a while, then get something to eat.”

“That sounds good. But we do that everyday.”

“We could try that virtual drum app on the iPad.”

“Yeah, I like that one. Awesome rhythms.”

“Or the koi pond app. I love those shimmering fish swimming in the turquoise water. It’s relaxing. Even when I’m calm, though, I like to tap that screen and watch those koi scatter.”

“Bring on the iPads!”

This conversation could be among any group of friends. In fact, however, it’s how I imagine Bonnie, Kyle, and Iris start their day at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington D.C.

They’re orangutans. And, like many others in 13 zoos around the world, they are part of the Apps for Apes program.

Orangutan paints with apps for apes to live a happier life

Orangutan artist at work
© Orangutan Outreach/Engel

Apps for Apes (sponsored by Orangutan Outreach) offers a variety of technology choices for orangutans to enrich their lives. It’s well known that orangutans are intelligent, but who knew they also have a geek streak?

When I first saw stories about this program, I sensed there were some valuable lessons to be learned. The apps provide a daily dose of mental and physical stimulation and that little dash of spice to keep things interesting. Isn’t that a good idea for all of us?

Oh, I see. A little spice can make us happier.

Thoughtful Orangutan ponders making choices to live a happier life with apps for apes

Hmmm. Life is full of interesting choices.
© Thinkstock

Lively Life Adventures

What else can I learn from my orangutan friends? With a 97% overlap in DNA between orangutans and us humans, I imagine that they have trouble, just like us, deciding what to do each day.

If there are free hours, why not have access to some entertainment, some digital stimulation, some new sights and sounds? Why not enrich life with new adventures?

Oh I see. Everyone’s life can be a little happier by making energizing and creative choices—and that includes the lives of our friends in the primate world.

Variety is Vital

Great ape keepers know how important it is to vary the daily lives of orangutans to keep them from getting bored or depressed. The caregivers provide variety in food, toys, and social interactions—all geared toward a happier life.

Now, they can also add technology—and give the animals a choice of interactive books, cameras, and apps that offer even more variety for stimulation and creative challenge.

Orangutan with iPad making choices to live a happier life with apps for apes

Orangutan studies his animal friends
© Orangutan Outreach/Center for Great Apes

Freedom of Choice

The Apps for Apes program puts iPads at the fingertips of these intelligent creatures and gives them freedom of choice to select what appeals to them.

The animals are never forced to play with an iPad. They have to show interest. And they do!

They love painting, playing the piano or xylophone, pounding out a percussive riff on the drums, or just watching koi swim. Take a look in the video below.

If video does not display, watch it here.

They also like looking at themselves (not unlike the most vain of us humans). When Mahal, an orangutan in Milwaukee, first saw himself on camera, he raised his hands and clapped. With all due humility, he gave himself a standing ovation.

Orangutans also like seeing other folks in the animal world. Soon, they’ll be skyping each other from one zoo to the next or friending one another to keep in touch. Can Angry Birds’ competitions be far behind?

Oh, I see. Choosing our own activities frees us to be who we really are.

Kindred Spirits

Every time I watch a video of a great ape or see photographs like those posted here, I feel we are kindred spirits.

And, as with any kindred spirit, there is much to be learned—the vitality of variety, the importance of making creative selections, and the need for freedom of choice.  Going ape for apps is just a plot line. This story is really about making good everyday choices for an adventurous, rewarding, and happier life.

Baby orangutan looks hopeful about making choices to live a happier life with apps for apes

Kindred spirits
© Thinkstock

To support Orangutan Outreach, you can donate an old iPad (or send a check). Orangutans are critically endangered in the wild because of rapid deforestation and the expansion of palm oil plantations into their rainforest home. If nothing is done to protect them, they will be extinct in just a few years. 

VIA Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

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4 thoughts on “Apps for Apes Point the Way to a Happier Life

  1. Hi Lila,
    Glad you liked the article. I find these orangutans absolutely fascinating (and it’s scary that they are so endangered in the wild). We can learn a lot from them.

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