Apps for Apes: The Digital Side of Animal Enrichment

Enrichment is a word many people hear at the OKC Zoo and it can be a bit confusing. Simply put, enrichment is the enhancement of the environment to provide animals with mental and physical stimulation to increase natural species appropriate behavior. It’s a major way staff at the Zoo, and zoos all over the world, engage with animals on a daily basis and enrich their lives. The Zoo’s great apes, including chimpanzees, Western lowland gorillas and Sumatran orangutans, are very smart and they problem solve just like people; and this is why the staff at Great EscApe at the OKC Zoo is always innovating new enrichment concepts.

It is very natural for Apes to explore items in their habitat and use them for many purposes. One way we encourage this behavior is through the toys that visitors can see either in their indoor or outdoor habitats. These toys are specially bought for them in mind; apes are very strong and can damage anything that is made out of thin plastic.  Most of our enrichment items are purchased from a company that specifically makes items for animals you would find at a zoo. They make enrichment items for big animals like tigers, apes, and elephants to small animals like fish, turtles, and goats. The ape toys are made from very hard plastics because they will throw, bite, sit on, or stand on the toys; they have to be very durable for a 400-pound gorilla to spend time playing with it. The apes enjoy feeder tires, crates, boomer balls, and other puzzle feeders each day. Many enrichment activities have a prize of either food or bedding that the apes figure out how to get out of a specialized toy encouraging problem solving behavior.

Another item the apes love to engage with for enrichment is an iPad. Apes are extremely smart and enjoy the challenge of the iPad and its simple games. It’s important to note that the apes are not given the iPads, but staff will hold the device on one side of a mesh door and they will stick their fingers through to engage with it. The Zoo’s iPad was donated as part of a program called Apps for Apes developed by Richard Zimmerman of Orangutan Outreach. We successfully applied to get an iPad through his program and have been enriching our apes ever since. One popular game features a piano on the screen that the apes can touch to make sounds. Another game they like is one where they pop colored bubbles. Different size bubbles float up the screen and they can pop each bubble with their fingers. Apes can see the entire spectrum of color, so the more colors the better. Although an Ape may never encounter an IPad outside of our habitats, this is an innovative way to encourage cognitive and problem solving behaviors.

The OKC Zoo staff is great at providing enrichment for all the animals each day. Each animal is different and is challenged in a different way, requiring “outside the box” thinking to provide new, engaging enrichment for the animals. Adding a little creativity, fun and stimulation to our animals’ lives provides our animals with opportunities to learn, interact and exhibit natural behaviors.

Robin Newby








Robin Newby, assistant curator of primates

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