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Visitor effects on animals
Research Project: Effects of zoo visitors on collection animals
Research indicates that both the behaviour and welfare of zoo animals can be affected by the zoo environment. A major part of the environment for zoo animals is the regular presence of unfamiliar human visitors watching, and sometimes actively seeking interaction.
However the impact of such visitor presence and behaviour on zoo animals remains poorly understood. Understanding these visitor effects will provide opportunities to further enhance animal welfare, and maintain public support for zoos and their role in education and species conservation.
To improve our understanding of visitor effects on zoo animals through a range of correlation-based and experimental studies at Zoos Victoria properties.
Three studies will compare the behaviour and physiology of animals during busy visitor periods (i.e. school holidays) and non-busy visitor periods. Study species include free-ranging White Rhinoceros, Red Kangaroos in walk-through exhibits, and carnivores including Servals, Red Panda, tigers, Coatis and leopards.
Three more studies will experimentally alter the potential visitor impact on animals and compare their behaviour and physiology under these manipulated conditions with normal visitor conditions. These studies involve:
- reducing the noise levels and interactive behaviour of visitors at multiple meerkat exhibits
- reducing the visibility of visitors for capuchins by using one-way screens
- regular behind-the-scenes handling effects on Lord Howe Island Stick Insects
Outcomes so far...
- Visitor behaviour varies significantly in school holidays and non-school holidays, creating very different visitor conditions for the animals, with higher frequencies of attempts to interact with animals and higher noise levels during school holidays
- Preliminary analysis suggests that Red Kangaroos respond to busier visitor conditions by sleeping less, with more work underway
- The meerkat study revealed that visitors respond well to requests to remain quiet. However, meerkats appear not to alter their behaviour in response to level of visitor interactivity.
Primary researcher: Sally Sherwen (PhD candidate – University of Melbourne)
Participating organisations: Zoos Victoria; Animal Welfare Science Centre; University of Melbourne; University of Queensland; Australian Animal Welfare Strategy