Touching Animals - Visitor/Animal Interactions in Zoos and Wildlife Parks

Zoo environments are a tremendous place to enhance the emotional ties of humans to wild animals. It also helps to foster an appreciation in visitors of the natural world if done well. Visitors can learn about animals, understand conservation issues and make connections between themselves and the natural world.

The level of interaction between zoo visitors and animals has greatly increased in recent years. Animal interactions are a popular marketing tool used by zoos to increase visitor rates as they are the primary source of funding for the zoo and their conservation and research efforts.

Many people from varied backgrounds visit zoos. According to the UK Manifesto for Zoos, more than 14 million people visit a zoo, aquarium or wildlife park each year. This is a large number of people interacting in some way with the animals in residence. There are different ways in which visitors can interact with captive zoo animals. This can include passive viewing, watching a educational talk or feeding animals.

Visitors are the main focus of education initiatives of zoos which can bring them into close contact with the animals. These close encounters are of greater learning benefit to visitors. Researchers have found that only 25% of visitors read the information at enclosures, however 45% of visitors watching an educational presentation where an animal is being handled asked at least one question about the animal.

The level of interaction and the species of animal will affect the influence visitors have on the animal’s behaviour. However, it is not completely understood to what effect the presence of visitors have on the behaviour of zoo animals.  However, below are some characteristics of visitors that can influence the behaviour of animals:

  • Density of visitors at enclosure.
  • Age and sex of the visitor.
  • Visitor distance from enclosure.
  • Visitor distance from animal.
  • Colour of clothing worn.
  • Objects carried – it is known that large birds of prey such as the Black-breasted buzzard react adversely to spinning wheels of prams and wheel chairs.
  • Camera flash rates.
  • Smells and scents – food being carried by visitors.

Some studies have shown that the presence of visitors can sometimes have a positive influence on animal behaviour.  Some indications that visitors are having a positive influence on animal behaviour include the following:

  • Play behaviour – occurs mainly in young animals and therefore not the best indicator for older animals.
  • Non-aggressive interactions – animals exhibited in social groupings shown grooming one another can be a sign of well-being. Observers need to take care when interpreting these behaviours as social grooming can occur in some species after bouts of aggression.
  • Display of natural behaviours – animals display a broad range of natural behaviours, including body postures, facial expressions and vocalisations.
  • Interest in visitors – information gathering behaviours such as vigilance and watching children playing on a climbing frame.

Visitor behaviour can also impact on animals. Noisy visitors and larger groups will have a larger impact than solitary quiet visitors. Visitors that offer food, eat and smoke around enclosures will also have a negative impact on animal behaviour. Negative behaviours displayed include:

  • Stereotypes – repetitive, non-functional behaviour.
  • Apathy/inactivity – activity levels below the normal expected behaviour for the species and their age.
  • Avoidance – animal actively avoids the visitors (e.g. hiding, cover, turning their back on visitors), this may demonstrate a need to escape, such as fleeing.
  • Aggressive behaviour – the presence of humans can cause aggressive behaviour between animals or it can be directed at visitors.
  • Shielding infants – mothers being unnaturally overprotective of offspring or constantly seeking reassurance from other social group members.
  • Self-focused behaviour – excessive grooming or biting as well as increased scratching in primates.
  • Vocalisation – fear can be vocalised if they are suddenly frightened by the appearance of visitors.
  • The animal does not display natural behaviours in the presence of visitors.

Reducing Stress of Human Audiences on Zoo Animals

Human visitors to zoos can have a negative impact on animal well-being. Some zoo visitors have interacted in a negative way with animals by climbing railings, leaning over barriers, yelling at animals and even throwing objects into enclosures to gain their attention. Zoos have tried many ways to reduce the stress of humans on captive animals. In some zoos, visitors were asked to crouch instead of stand at primate enclosures as the animals would then see them as less of a threat.

As it can be difficult to have visitors comply with requests (such as tapping on aquarium glass), it can sometimes be best to redesign access to enclosures. One way is to present a visual barrier for the animals, making it difficult for the animals to see visitors. This has been proven to have a positive influence on primate behaviour. It also had the added benefit of providing visitors with a more natural view of their behaviour which they enjoyed. Visual barriers need to be continually monitored by zoo staff to ensure that they remain effective.

Sound absorbing materials can also be used to minimise the effective of noise on sensitive animals. Zoos can also provide educational information about the effects of noise stress on some species.

In Aquariums, signs have been used to try to reduce the number of visitors banging on aquarium glass. This has had various results. Zoo staff found that particular wording on signs worked better than others. Humour was always appreciated by visitors and was surprisingly more effective than direct signs. Research also showed that visitors responded better to signage when it related to visitor responsibility and pride. Taking ownership of the animals also had the added benefit of fostering some responsibility for the conservation of the animals in the wild.

It should be pointed out that animal behaviour can also affect the behaviour of visitors. For example, in some zoos the actions of chimpanzees to solicit food from visitors in turn change the behaviour of the visitor. This issue needs to be addressed when attempting to change the actions and attitudes of visitors.

Fostering positive relationships between visitors and animals can be of great benefit to animal well-being. It can also improve the effectiveness of education and conservation messages. These relationships between visitors and animals can be improved using positive reinforcement training.


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