Houston Zoo turns to iPad apps for ape entertainment


They have names like Riley, Willy and Sally, and the chimpanzees at the Houston Zoo never fail to delight visitors. Truth be told, people are there to entertain the animals.

The challenge for their keepers is how to keep the chimps mentally stimulated. As with everything now, there's an app for that.

Early in the morning the door to the training room is opened. It's the signal to the chimps that a treat is in store and increasingly now it's an iPad. Helen Boostrom is one of the zoo's primate keepers. She's studying how different primates relate to iPads.

"A lot of people aren't sure how to use an iPad, but these guys are figuring it out and people can see the intelligence level from these demonstrations," said Boostrom.

It's called Apps for Apes and the idea began with a New York group called Orangutan Outreach. It started at the Milwaukee zoo. The Houston Zoo is the first in Texas to participate in the program.

Already Boostrom has also noticed something familiar. Here, too, there appears to be a generational gap in iPad acceptance.

Boostrom explained, "Our juveniles among the chimps and orangutans are the most interested. We have the most interaction from them."

They're learning how to drag images on the screen. They're also amazing and impressing zoo visitors like Rachel Santos and her infant daughter.

"Just how innately close they are to us and how they can learn in the same way," Santos said. "She's already figuring out the iPad at home."

The next plan is for the primates to start logging Facetime on iPads, and even Skyping with other apes across the country. Technology has been bringing people, and now primates, together.

If you want to follow along with the animals' app use, check out the Houston Zoo blog.

Zoo experts say these are the apes' favorites apps:

  • Music Sparkle -- Makes music, aimed toward infants
  • Doodle Buddy -- A drawing app
  • Go to the Zoo -- Pictures and videos of different zoo animals
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