Claire Richard, the primary gorilla keeper at the Milwaukee County Zoo, saw the report and posted an item on Facebook: "I want one of these for Maji (one of the gorillas at the zoo)."
A friend, Zoo Pride volunteer Kim Houk, replied, "How cool would that be; get one for Mahal, too!"
Self-described "friend of the zoo" Scott Engel, a freelance photographer, developer of apps and a big fan of Mahal, saw the note and had a message of his own for Richard:
"I can make this happen."
Engel donated an iPad of his own, and more followed - including one from a customer at an Apple store who overheard him talking about his idea to bring iPads to great apes at the zoo. A volunteer saw Engel working with M.J. on the iPad and asked if he’d like a couple more, so she donated two brand new iPads.
The gorillas were wary of the new device, and remain so.
"They were all very scared," said Richard, the primary gorilla keeper. "It’s a different species. Orangutans are curious about everything. Gorillas are afraid of everything.
"Because it’s something new and different, they’re real hesitant to even approach it. Hodari, the youngest one (16), had the most curiosity. ... Hodari was able to figure out the finger painting," Richard said.
"Maji (an older gorilla) just wanted to break it. He couldn’t figure out what the whole thing was, and he just wanted to get hold of it."
But the inquisitive orangutans were another story.
Mahal’s first look at the iPad was a photo of himself. His reaction: He threw his arms into the air and clapped.
"They were enthralled," Engel said. "One of the first things we did was take advantage of the built-in camera on the iPad, and turn the camera on them, because they’re used to looking into a mirror and recognizing themselves."
Engel and the keepers looked for other ways to use the iPad and came up with videos of other animals in the Milwaukee zoo as well as other zoos.
M.J. likes to watch videos of Tommy, a male orangutan who was separated from Mahal and M.J. about a year ago after he became rough with Mahal.
"Mahal loves the penguins," said Engel, who made a video of them at feeding time. "He just sat there watching them, with his arms folded across his chest. He jumped back when the penguins flapped a wing."
Engel also produced a short video: Secret Agent Mahal - YouTube that portrays Mahal as a secret agent named 00 3/4, with spy music and comic footage of Mahal in his enclosure, goofing around in a box and covered with an old sheet. It’s his favourite video.
Khan and Engel also use free apps - some of them mimicking the enrichment activities they already use, but with less mess, such as the finger-painting app.
"The reason I liked that one is if I give them regular finger paints, they eat ‘em," Richard said. "It’s like coloured pudding."
Favourite apps include Virtuoso, Doodle Buddy, Koi Pond, Magic Piano, Fish Farm and Tap Drums (Mahal is especially fond of this one), as well as an interactive book that has a lot of motion: objects flying across the screen with the flick of a finger.
Much of the iPad use is from outside the glass, but Khan also lets the orangutans touch the screens through a grid on the side of their enclosure. Their long nails impede them from touching the screen, so keepers must hold the iPad at a certain angle.
"We’re finding out they can’t use the whole screen," Khan said. "We’re problem-solving, as well as the orangutans."
The orangutans take part in these activities without food rewards - a bonus, Khan said.
"We’re always looking for activities that will engage them without the added calories," Khan said. "So they’re purely doing it for their own interest. Not for a grape."
Enrichment activities for primates are defined as anything that will "stimulate natural behavior," Khan said.
So how does an iPad do that? It’s not exactly something that would be found in the rain forest, the native habit of orangutans.
"We provide enrichment to them all day long that’s man-made enrichment. I mean, that’s what we have - whatever materials you can get that they won’t destroy, things that keep them interested," Khan said. They wouldn’t have finger paints, wading pools or TV sets - all used as enrichment - in the rain forest either, she noted.
Giving them stimulation that leads to "natural behavior" helps them behave more like great apes.
"This is their environment they’re in now," Khan said. "Any sort of mental stimulation is eliciting natural behaviors. Great apes are problems solvers by nature. That’s why this sort of technology appeals to me, and appeals to them, because it gives them that opportunity."
Khan and others are brainstorming other uses for the iPad.
"They can also possibly have contact with other great apes in other facilities in the nation or around the world (via video or Skype)," Khan said. "This is the embryonic stage of how we’re using them."
There’s a benefit, too, of having humans - so closely related to these great apes - connect with them as they use the iPads.
"It’s something that people do on their own iPad or their own computer, and they can see, wow, the extreme intelligence, this intelligent life form there," Khan said. "It’s not just an animal looking at them through the glass."