May 11 - Orangutans at the Jungle Island Zoo in Florida are learning to use iPads to identify object like body parts and food. The hi-tech approach to communication is modeled on a system used successfully with autistic children. The zoo is hoping it will help visitors connect with the apes and promote awareness of their endangered status in the wild. Ben Gruber paid them a visit.
Hanna is a teenager - and like most teenagers she is addicted to technology, specifically, her new IPad. Jungle Island caretaker Linda Jacob's' says her orang-utans are extremely intelligent but sometimes, like autistic human children, they have difficulties communicating their needs and desires. So Jacobs pulled out her IPad and downloaded an app designed to help autistic kids communicate. (SOUNDBITE) (English) LINDA JACOBS, ORANGUTAN KEEPER, JUNGLE ISLAND, SAYING: "Quite often a human autistic child is trapped in their body and they can't communicate. And that is what we have had with orang-utans too. They have all the intelligence they need to really communicate with us but they don't have the developed vocal chords and voice boxes , so they have the intelligence but not the equipment. This gives them a voice." And with a voice come demands. The IPad application helps the orang-utans identify objects like fruits and animals. Now, when Hannah wants a mango she uses the IPad to make sure her keepers are aware of it. Jacobs has been caring for her Orang-utans for more than 15 years. She says she usually knows what they like, but, as they become more proficient with the IPad, she is hoping to be able to personalise their lunch menu. (SOUNDBITE) (English) LINDA JACOBS, ORANGUTAN KEEPER, JUNGLE ISLAND, SAYING: "Some of them like carrots more than they like beets and don't we all want to have that choice? I don't want to eat the same thing every day or something that someone else picks for me. So I want them to have a choice and say what their lunch is." Jenna Hogg is a primate keeper at the zoo. She says the IPad may be perfect for humans but has limitations for apes. (SOUNDBITE) (English) JENNA HOGG, PRIMATE KEEPER, JUNGLE ISLAND, SAYING: "Well the obstacles are definitely the IPad itself. If we could find the software that was developed that could fit more of the orang-utan style, their fingers, their ability not to destroy it. That would be amazing. I think if we got that going we would be more far along than we are now." In the not too distant future, Jenna and Linda hope to set up interactive screens outside the cages which will sync with the IPads - allowing people to start communicating with the orang-utans. Jacobs says that if people can form a relationship with Hannah, they might become more active in protecting her relatives in the wild. Ben Gruber, Reuters.