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Orangutan Outreach

Apps for apes

This new program at the Houston Zoo sounds great, but we all know how it ends, right?

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.

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.”

Okay, I’m not saying that it has to end in a dystopian future where apes dominate the planet and humans are subservient. I’m just saying that Dr. Zaius had to start somewhere, and I’ll bet he’d have gotten a lot farther faster if he’d had an iPad. But maybe we’ll still be okay if we contain this experiment and ensure that the apes have no way to communicate among themselves.

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.

Never mind.

(I’m just kidding. Seriously, this is very cool.)