How do zoo animals feel about visitors?

Zoo meerkat

I’ve always wondered about the kind of impact that visitors have on the emotional state of animals in zoos. Do the animals like the presence of human visitors or the opposite? There is an article today in The Times newspaper which helps me with an answer. It is not comprehensive but illuminates the topic slightly.

Zoo meerkat

Zoo meerkat. Image by Hans Benn from Pixabay

Tiger selfies are a sad, bad fad.

British scientists have observed meerkats at British zoos. They observed the behaviour of meerkats during the first coronavirus lockdown when, of course, there were no visitors. They also observed them for a month after zoos reopened.

They concluded that once the zoos had reopened slender-tailed meerkats displayed more “alert behaviours” and had more positive social interactions such as grooming and playing. Therefore, we have to conclude that meerkats like to be surrounded by human visitors.

It is suggested that their altered behaviour could indicate their natural curiosity as they had not seen visitors for a long time.

The meerkats that were studied included those at Chester and London zoos. In 2019 they had 3.2 million visitors between them. Dr Samantha Ward, who I believe is the lead scientist and author of the study, and a lecturer in animal science at Nottingham Trent University, said that the return of visitors was a “positive and engaging experience for them.”

She also said: “It was promising to see that they were glad to welcome back the visitors.”

Penguins’ behaviour was also analysed during and after the lockdown but they found no significant changes.

The study is published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science. The researcher said that more work is required to understand the impact that visitors have on the behaviour of zoo animals.

Comment: I know a bit about captive wild cats at zoos. It is said that jaguars tolerate zoos better than sand cats. Many sand cats die very quickly in zoos because they become seriously ill. Clearly there is a difference between animals as to how they tolerate being captive in the same way animals respond differently in response to visitors.

The effect on their mood and behaviour because they are captive must have a bearing upon their behaviour with or without human visitors. The former may totally mask the latter. It depends upon the strength of the impact that the circumstances have over their mood and behaviour.

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