Penguins crowd around an iPad game at the Aquarium of the Pacific.
Penguins crowd around an iPad game at the Aquarium of the Pacific. Sara Mandel/Aquarium of the Pacific

As an aviculturist at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, Sara Mandel is always looking for ways to make her penguins’ lives more interesting. She and her fellow staffers blow bubbles for their charges. They’ve thrown them penguin parties, complete with confetti and a disco ball.

So one day in 2013, when Mandel happened to have her iPad at work, she asked her boss whether it might be ok to show it to the penguins. She had already downloaded a game, “Game for Cats“—in which mice, lasers and butterflies scurry across the screen, and react to touch—for her pets at home. “I bet they’ll ignore it,” her boss said, but he told her to go ahead and give it a try anyway.

So she booted it up. One penguin, a one-year-old named Newsom, “immediately put his bill on it,” remembers Mandel. “It made a sound. And all of a sudden he was in hunting mode. He just kept doing it over and over again.”

Sitting in one place and tapping on a screen may seem like a fundamentally human pursuit. But over the past few years, more and more animals have begun to use computers—for scientific studies, for rehabilitation efforts, or, like Newsom the penguin, just to have something to do. And a whole lot of those species, from pigeons to wolves to black bears to tortoises, seem to actively enjoy it.

“Our animals appear to really like the work,” says Lina Oberliessen, a researcher at the Wolf Science Center in Ernstbrunn, Austria. “Some of them are kind of workaholics.” The WSC’s stated mission is “to investigate the common characteristics shared by wolf, dog, and man,” which they accomplish through behavioral and cognitive research. Oberliessen, for instance, is studying whether or not wolves have a sense of fairness by asking them to choose how food rewards are distributed between themselves and other wolves.

To make studies like this easier, the wolves and dogs that live at the Center are trained early on, with food rewards and clicker reinforcement, to be comfortable using touchscreens. “They learn that they have to touch it, and that it’s good,” says Oberliessen. Depending on the study, they’re then taught to associate particular symbols with corresponding outcomes—say, one versus two treats being dispensed—and to choose between them by bumping the screen with their noses. (Some particularly excitable wolves also use their paws.)

A cold nose hits a touchscreen at the Wolf Science Center.
A cold nose hits a touchscreen at the Wolf Science Center. Courtesy Rooobert Bayer/Wolf Science Center

This system makes things much simpler for the researchers, who take advantage of the flexibility the screen offers to design a variety of tests. “It’s really simple—if the animal knows how to use a screen, you can modify the symbols and change the tasks,” she says. It also makes for eager study subjects, some of whom have truly internalized their training.

“Some animals love the touchscreen so much that it seems they don’t really care what happens,” says Oberliessen. “Sometimes they don’t even take the reward.” They wait eagerly for their turns with the machines, and if a certain wolf or dog isn’t scheduled to use one on a particular day, “they seem disappointed,” she says. “They look like [they’re asking], ‘I’m not being tested? Why!?’”

And when faced with the wolf-touchscreen equivalent of the spinning pinwheel of death, she says, they react just like humans: “If they do it wrong and the screen turns white again, they get frustrated. They press again right away, and don’t wait until the next symbol comes.”

“It’s really cute,” she adds.

Other researchers have similar stories. Dr. Jennifer Vonk, a cognitive scientist who, over the course of various projects, has trained black bears, orangutans, and silverback gorillas to use touchscreens, posits that her study subjects enjoy the intellectual stimulation the computers provide (although the food rewards, and the opportunity to interact with humans, certainly don’t hurt). “They voluntarily participate in an environment where there are other things to do,” she writes in an email. “The bears would run indoors from the outdoor habitat when they saw us coming. The orangutans used to spit and poke at me until it was their turn to ‘play.’”

It’s not just mammals, either. In 2014, a team of researchers from the University of Lincoln and the University of Vienna trained tortoises to use a touchscreen in order to test their spatial awareness. Not only did the tortoises quickly figure out what they were being asked to do—faster than dogs given the same task—there’s no reason to think they weren’t having a good time, writes Dr. Anna Wilkinson, the study’s lead author, in an email.

“They readily worked on it, which suggests that they did not dislike it,” she writes. (“One way to tell if a tortoise is comfortable in a situation is to examine its neck length,” she adds. “As you can see from the video [below], Esme looks comfortable in there.”)

Onboarding these new users isn’t always easy. Sarah Ritvo, a doctoral student at York University who specializes in animal-computer interaction, told a story about a colleague who ran into a problem while using touchscreens to test whether orangutans prefer pictures of their own species to those of other apes. “There was a big male orangutan, and he didn’t want to physically touch pictures of other male orangutans—it was basically a dominance thing,” she says. “He started picking up a stick and touching the screen instead.” The hack caught on: “All of a sudden, all the other orangutans refused to touch the touchscreen,” she says. “We ended up having to buy everyone wooden dowels.”

Such investments are generally worth it. For scientists, it’s a win-win when animals dig computers. It makes a day’s work easier, both for them and for their research subjects. For others like Mandel, who are focused on making the lives of captive animals better, the fun itself is the point. After Newsom took so strongly to Mandel’s iPad, a volunteer donated an old tablet to the aquarium. It’s now a regular part of the penguins’ enrichment rotation, along with more traditional playthings such as soap bubbles or floating toys. “When I bring it out, they get really excited,” says Mandel.

By this point, Newsom the penguin, who is now four years old, has largely outgrown the screen. But the younger penguins, who might otherwise be a bit bored during breeding season, tend to really take to it. “Every summer we get new penguins, and every summer they have to figure out what life is like for a penguin,” says Mandel. “For some reason, they’re all interested in the iPad.”

Zoos, aquariums, and rescue centers across the world have picked up on the trend. Game for Cats is popular—besides its permanent place at the penguin exhibit, it has helped rehab an injured pigeon, and made an appearance at a big cat sanctuary in North Carolina. Orangutans at the Melbourne Zoo are playing XBox Kinect. One researcher working with a great ape sanctuary in Des Moines has even designed what he calls the “RoboBonobo”—a squirt-gun-wielding robot ape that the primates on display can control with an iPad, in order to squirt the less hairy primates watching them.

Some experts think games are only the tip of the iceberg. Orangutans at the Miami Zoo are already using tablets to give their keepers dinner suggestions—someday, animals might use touchscreens to control many things about their own environments, from temperature to light levels to whether or not they are visible to guests. “Here’s an interface that’s programmable, and it can be big or small, it can provides light, sound, smells, even tactile information,” says Ritvo. “It’s such a spectacular way to broaden their worlds.”

In the meantime, there are ways in which we can learn from them, too: “I would be very surprised to see an orangutan sitting in front of a screen all day,” says Ritvo. “They prefer to wrestle and play.”