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Let’s get digital. The modern solution to captive ape enrichment?

The classic ‘food-puzzle’ has long been a zoo-keeper favourite, but what if our super-smart cousins could join us in the digital age?

Animal well-being is the top priority for today’s zoos and conservation organisations. For endangered species such as the orangutan, successful zoological agendas for their captive cousins are vital for ensuring great-ape conservation. ‘Cognitive enrichment’ has established as a vital feature of conservation programmes; promoting primate intelligence and problem solving that may otherwise be constrained by their captive conditions. Scientists from the Department of Biological Anthropology at Australia’s National University (Kim-McCormack et al. 2016) have recently provided an exciting review on a more ‘dynamic and flexible’ solution to today’s cognitive enrichment strategies – in the hope of boosting the conservation success of these beloved animals.

Enrichment activities for an orangutan, using an iPad, at Milwaukee County Zoo. Photo: © Milwaukee County Zoo

Although widely used, several issues surround current cognitive enrichment activities in zoos. ‘Habituation’ is widely reported, when novel objects or activities become the norm to the animal with repeated encounters. As you can guess, this doesn’t exactly provide much of a mental challenge for one of the smartest creatures on the planet. This places pressure on keepers to re-invent activities and puzzles to maintain an appropriate level of ‘enrichment’. Studies have shown that captive animals fare much better when they are able to independently govern their environment.

An orangutan using an iPad as enrichment, at Smithsonian National Zoo.

Photo: © Elliott Fabrizio

Enter then - the digital world. The authors of the paper detail the exciting possibilities that devices such as tablets, motion sensor activities and videos might have on great-ape cognitive enrichment and overall welfare. This is a developing area or research and despite the mixed results, Kim-McCormack and her team are confident that digital enrichment presents a promising outlook for captive great-ape wellbeing. It seems that both passive (watching videos) and active (solving puzzles on a tablet) participation seems to reduce habituation and other stress-related symptoms known in captive animals. Scientists seem encouraged that the wide variety of digital activities seem to engage vital primate behaviours, such as self-expression, social interaction and sensory intelligence. Computer-based enrichment has also been shown to reduce the dangers associated with introducing new objects into the enclosure (Melbourne Zoo).

Despite the infancy of this research, it offers a tantalising glance into the future of captive cognitive enrichment, as well as offering a positive outlook into improving the welfare of these incredible creatures. As ever, further studies are needed to delve into testing digital cognitive enrichment and establish the limitations associated with wide-scale implementation. Perhaps the day when technology brings us even closer to our great-ape cousins is not that far away at all…!

For further information – have a read of the full paper here.


  • Kim-McCormack, N.N.E., et al., Is interactive technology a relevant and effective enrichment for captive great apes? Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. (2016).

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