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Miami Zoo Primates Go Bananas for iPad

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A family of six orangutans at Miami’s Jungle Island Zoological Park have been introduced to Apple (AAPL) iPads in an effort to bridge the communication gap between humans and the endangered animals. Finally, a believable explanation for how apes will get smart enough to enslave their human overlords -- had we only taken 20th Century Fox’s (NWS) Planet of the Apes franchise seriously.

Today, the Herald Sun reported the orangutans -- who share 97% of their DNA with humans--have been using the iPads to "draw, play games and expand their vocabulary."

It might not come as a surprise to learn the apes’ interests in the tablets aren’t too different from our own. Among the ape clan, the 8-year-old twins are obsessed with it. Their teenage sibling is, too. But senior members of the group aren’t so enthralled with the new technology. Maybe they’d feel more comfortable using a Galaxy Tablet (GOOG) instead?

“I think they just figure, 'I've gotten along just fine in this world without this communication skill here and the iPad, and I don't need a computer,' " explains Linda Jacobs, who oversees the program. Sounds like your older relative who still thinks you have to sign into AOL (AOL) to get on the internet, doesn’t it?

In the past, the orangutans have been restricted to using sign language to communicate their thoughts and needs.

“They are sort of trapped in those bodies," Jacobs says. "They have this intelligence that they need to communicate, but they don't have the right equipment, because they don't have voice boxes or vocal chords. So this gives them a way to let us know what they know, what they are capable of, what they would like to have."

Orangutans considered to be one of the world’s smartest animals, and in captivity have displayed remarkable creative-thinking skills. In fact, constant stimulation is necessary for apes in captivity, or else depression and boredom will quickly set in. The iPads offer a whole new means of stimulation.

Jacobs is not alone in her mission to introduce these creatures to the 21st century. Richard Zimmerman is the executive director of the nationwide program Orangutan Outreach, whose "Apps for Apes" program is developing a video conferencing service that will connect them to furry friends and relatives who have been relocated to other zoos. An official name for the service is currently being considered; primate play dates or red ape rendezvous are two top contenders.

But don’t expect these branch-swingers to switch to a digital lifestyle anytime soon. The orangutans are only allowed to touch their iPads, never hold them. The machines were definitely not designed to be a primate’s play thing.

“If I gave them the iPad, I could just basically hand them $600 and say, ‘Go have fun,’ ” Jacobs says.

As for the future of iPad integration at Jungle Island, there are plans to set up a secured tablet within the orangutans’ enclosure, and one for visitors just outside, allowing a revolution in interaction between zoo patrons and their very, very distant relatives.

(For more ape news, check out Hyundai Puts New Car Through Monkey Test.)
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