We humans like to think that we’re on top of the world – after all, we are on top of the food chain, we’re the smartest beings on earth (on our best days, at least), and we’ve invented some pretty cool stuff. But we might want to watch out: our closest genetic neighbors are beginning to get the hang of this whole technology thing. While orangutans are not actually monkeys – they’re classified as apes, as they have no tails – that hasn’t prevented a few from monkeying around with technology.
Terri Cox, Programs & Exhibits Curator at Cameron Park Zoo in Waco, Texas, is using Skype amongst other technology, as a form of enrichment for their resident orangutans Mei and Mukah. Trainers reward the two with treats for completing tasks like touching the computer screen, interacting with a drawing, or drumming musical apps and making sounds, during video calls hosted with other orangutans and animals at faraway zoos. “They’re highly intelligent,” Cox said. “Allowing orangutans to see old companions from other zoos or meet new friends before they move zoos… it’s like meeting a new roommate before they move in.”
While Mei and Mukah are pretty new to Skype, they’re no novices either. Just recently, Mei made a guest appearance via Skype video call during an interview that Cox had with a Fuji television station in Japan. “Mei was across the enclosure when I started the interview,” she said. “As soon as the reporter called out Mei’s name, she got really excited and came down to watch the screen attentively for the rest of the call.”
Another reason for the use of technology with their animals is to raise awareness of orangutans in their natural habitats. Orangutans are critically endangered in the wild, mainly due to deforestation and the expansion of palm oil plantations into their rainforest home. “Palm oil is causing immense pressure – it’s included nearly everything we eat, cosmetics, cleaning products…the rainforest being devastated,” Cox said. “We want to bring more attention to this. People have to care about the animals and interact with them to make changes in their daily lives in order to help them. Technology helps us make connections with animals and the public to facilitate this change.”
To further raise awareness of conservation efforts, Skype video calls with local schools are in the works. “We’ve got lots of activities to explore. We’re thinking of doing some video conference sessions with region 12 school systems in Texas classrooms in the spring,” she said. “It doesn’t have to just be orangutans – we’d like to include elephants, too, which are also quite intelligent.”
Cox encourages anyone interested in learning more about orangutan conservation efforts, making a donation, or adopting an orangutan, to please visit the Orangutan Outreach website: www.RedApes.org.