Zoos of the future
In a ground-breaking study by an ANU researcher, orangutans and chimpanzees in a zoo are choosing to watch a video or play a game on a touch screen. Yes, really. EVANA HO reports.
Some of the group even engaged in two-player games with visitors.
In any zoo around the world on any given day, you’ll see similar images: animals being fed and enclosures being cleaned.
However Nicky Kim-McCormack, whose doctoral research is on great apes, says captive management strategies are now moving away from focusing solely on physical needs and towards psychological needs – what’s called ‘enrichment’.
During her Master degree, she found the type of enrichment offered to orangutans in one Australian zoo was furniture and food-related toys.
“Don’t get me wrong, those are great, but the orangutans get habituated to these quickly because they’re so intelligent,” she says.
The problem is not isolated to orangutans. It’s the case for other non-human primates – and most likely other animal species too.
Now, through her PhD, Kim-McCormack is studying a new form of enrichment – well, new for non-human primates.
She had worked for a digital agency in New York before studying wildlife management at Macquarie University. In 2016, she began her doctoral studies in Biological Anthropology at ANU, working in the lab group of Dr Alison Behie where she combined her digital skills with expertise as a primatologist.
In designing a pilot study for use at Seoul Zoo, she was inspired by the project Apps for Apes. The videos on that website show Apple iPads being held up to orangutan enclosures and orangutans stretching their hands through the gaps to touch the iPad screen.
It’s a glimpse of something that a few zoos have been furtively testing – allowing primates to interact with digital technologies. But why digital technologies?
“Primates are less likely to habituate to digital enrichment because it’s interactive and the activities can be easily changed,” Kim-McCormack explains.
So far, primates have not been given free rein with a portable device because of the risk the devices will be damaged through rough handling.
For the study, the team decided to use touch-glass technology – clear transparent film with sensor points that can be stuck to any transparent surfaces of an enclosure.
Over eight months, Nicky ran through a variety of experiments with a small group of orangutans and chimpanzees. Some of the group were trained to use the glass touch screen, and could watch videos of other orangutans and chimpanzees in the wild and in captivity, and play three games that Kim-McCormack and her supervisors designed.
Some of the group even engaged in two-player games with visitors on the other side of the glass.
In one part of the experiment, the orangutans were able to choose to watch videos or play a game and to choose what game they wanted to play. This element of the study was a world first, one that Kim-McCormack believes is key to realising the full benefits of digital enrichment.
“Just as humans prefer different types of games with varying levels of complexity, so too do primates, depending on their environment, age, life history and intelligence,” she says.
“It’s this ability to choose that can improve their psychological welfare, and I’m hoping my future research will find more evidence for this.”
In spite of growing evidence that digital enrichment could have a strongly positive effect on the wellbeing of primates, many zoos and sanctuaries remain reluctant to incorporate it.
“Some people are concerned that it’s not ‘natural’,” Kim-McCormack says.
“The environments we create for animals are based on our assumptions of what is natural, but we can’t get away from the fact that they are actually artificial.
“I think we need to rely on the best available evidence of what we can do to improve the welfare of animals in captivity rather than what simply looks natural to us.”
So does Nicky see the consensus shifting and does she think that touch screens might become the norm in great ape enclosures in the near future?
“If our ongoing research continues to show that free choice coupled with digital enrichment yields really positive results for the welfare of great apes, then I hope all zoos and sanctuaries will implement both in the future.”