The Un-Musical Orangutan

18 May

Orangutans and IpadsArthur Schopenhauer wrote some of the most fulsome praise for the role of music in human cognition. “The effect of music is so very much more powerful and penetrating than is that of the other arts, for these others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence.” According to Alanna Mitchell, a non-human ape wouldn’t agree with Schopenhauer in the least. Apes prefer silence.

This startling conclusion came as one surprise following encounters between orangutans and iPads. Orangutans and iPads are not really a good match, because of the way orangutan digits and nails frustrate the dexterity needed to manipulate an iPad screen. Orangutan nails extend over the digit’s pads. Still, communication with humans and other orangutans might prove possible. But, what orangutans don’t get is music, which they can’t distinguish from random noise. Still, orangutans, unlike gorillas and chimps, find the iPad worthy of the effort needed to use it, even if it takes a few hours of contemplation to do it. Chimps are more likely to smash the iPad; gorillas just run from the infernal device.

The six orangutans at the Miami Zoo — 35-year-old Connie, 33-year-old Sinbad, 14-year-old Hannah, 12-year-old Jake, and 8-year-old twin girls Peanut and Pumpkin — were first introduced to the iPad last summer. Initially, the orangutans were just shown the iPad to desensitize them. Next the trainers asked them to touch the iPad without pulling it into the cage. “They catch on so quickly, it wasn’t long before we started showing them pictures and identifying different objects with them,” Jacobs said.

Sinbad and Connie aren’t so keen on the tablet. “I like to compare the two older ones to my parents — I keep trying to get them to use an iPad and they’re just not interested,” Jacobs said. The other orangutans, though, are very excited by the tablet. They take turns getting to use it, and all run to be the first one to handle it, Jacobs said.

“They really are so intelligent that I think there’s no limit to what they can learn,” Jacobs said. “It’s just about developing the technology to make it possible.”

Due to their curious nature and tough nails, the orangutans don’t actually get to hold the iPad (which is housed in an Otter Box case) in the cage themselves. Instead, a trainer holds it outside the cage. If left to their own devices, the primates would take it apart to see how it works, Jacobs said, so it wouldn’t last that long.

In the future, Jacobs hopes to set up a form of video conferencing so the apes can meet and interact with their counterparts at other zoos across the world (an organization called Orangutan Outreach is currently working on this with donated iPads at other U.S. zoos). She also hopes that this endeavor will bring more awareness to orangutans, which are greatly endangered in the wild because of deforestation.

Still, orangutans won’t be sharing lists on iTunes anytime soon.

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