2013 News

Unravelling the relationship between humans and zoo animals

Date: 17th October

Work Group: AWRED

Activity Type: Research

A big part of an animal’s life in the zoo is the regular presence of unfamiliar faces watching, waving and actively seeking interaction with animals.

But have you ever wondered what that might look and feel like if you were sitting on the other side of the fence?

Melbourne University PhD student, Sally Sherwen, says the impact of visitor presence and behaviour on zoo animals remains poorly understood, which is why she is monitoring the responses of various animal species in Victoria's zoos.

“A lot of research has been conducted in the livestock industry, but less is known about the effect of human interaction on zoo animals,” Ms Sherwen said.

“Understanding these visitor effects provide opportunities to further enhance animal welfare, and maintain public support for zoos and their role in education and species conservation.”

Ms Sherwen’s research includes a range of observational and experimental research at Melbourne and Werribee Open Range zoos and Healesville Sanctuary.

Her research is being supervised by Melbourne University's Animal Welfare Science Centre and Zoos Victoria, with support from the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy (AAWS).

AAWS was jointly developed by the Australian Government, state and territory governments, industry and the community. It aims to deliver sustainable improvements in the welfare of all animals by outlining directions for future improvements and providing national and international communities with an appreciation of animal welfare arrangements in Australia.

As part of her research, Ms Sherwen has been observing meerkats' resting posture, behaviour and the distances they kept from viewing areas under different visitor conditions

“Meerkats are one of the most popular zoo species because of their activity level, which in turn can encourage excitable visitor behaviours such as sudden movements and loud noises,” Ms Sherwen said.

The experiment included two treatments. In the first treatment, Ms Sherwen observed visitor behaviour in an unregulated environment, allowing visitors to interact freely with the meerkats.

The second treatment involved manipulating the environment whereby visitor behaviour was modified by the presence of a zoo official and signage requesting visitors to be quiet and not to interact with animals.

This enabled Ms Sherwen to reduce the noise and intensity of the human interaction.

Both treatments were evaluated by recording visitor noise using a decibel logger and by ranking intensity of visitor behaviour on a 0-2 scale (from passively observing to actively attempting to gain the animals’ attention) every two minutes throughout 24 study days at three meerkat enclosures.

“Preliminary analysis of the data suggests that despite the change in visitor conditions, the regulated treatment did not affect the distance meerkats positioned themselves from visitors or the proportion of time engaged in cautious behaviour and resting behaviour,” Ms Sherwen said.

“So far, the research shows that meerkats seem to be generally unaffected by loud visitor behaviour, which means they’re a suitable zoo species.

“If animal’s cope with intense human interaction, then this can be encouraged without compromising the welfare of animals: it’s a win win for the animals and the people.”

Ms Sherwen is also examining hormone stress levels in faecal matter of a range of species to observe if there are any changes to stress levels in response to different visitor conditions. Physiological data is a robust measurement which complements behavioural observations. 

Ms Sherwen hopes to move onto researching primates later this year in several zoos around Australia, where she will study how monkeys interpret visual contact with humans such as waving and facial expressions.


ContactKate Leahy, Cox Inall Communications, 0437 231 150