Elephants are among the animals that enjoy the presence of zoo visitors, a new study has suggested. The study, conducted by animal behaviour experts at Nottingham Trent University and Harper Adams University, analysed more than 100 previous research papers on how visitors affected the behaviour of more than 250 species in zoos.
The researchers found that elephants increased their social activity and decreased their repetitive behaviours, which often indicate boredom, when zoo visitors were present. The elephants also foraged more and were less inactive after public feedings. The study suggested that visitors might provide stimulation and enrichment for the elephants, who are highly intelligent and social animals.
“Some animal species have been born and raised in zoos and so have likely become used to the presence of humans,” said Dr Samantha Ward, a zoo animal welfare scientist in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences. She added: “Zoo visitors are often aspects of a zoo animal’s environment that animals cannot control and as such can be stressful, although some species appear to show good adaptability for the changing conditions of visitors.”
The study also found positive effects of visitors on some other animals, such as cockatoos, penguins, jaguars, grizzly bears, polar bears, cheetahs, servals, banteng and black tailed prairie dogs. These animals showed increased social behaviour, activity or enclosure use when visitors were around. For example, cockatoos might be stimulated by the visitors, while long-billed corella spent more time closer to the visitors on busy days.
However, not all animals reacted positively to visitors. Some animal groups, such as flightless birds, odd and even-toed ungulates, marsupials, ostriches, tuatara and hedgehogs, showed negative responses to visitors. These animals might be more fearful of humans due to their natural habitats or activity patterns. For instance, prey species that live in closed habitats such as forests or are nocturnal might be less likely to encounter people in the wild.
The researchers noted that visitors affected animal behaviour in various ways, including their levels of activity, enclosure use, feeding, movement, rest, abnormal behaviour, vigilance and social behaviour. They also pointed out that visitor effects might depend on factors such as visitor numbers, distance, noise and behaviour. They suggested that zoos should monitor visitor effects on animal welfare and implement measures to reduce stress or enhance enrichment for different species.
The study was published in the journal Animals and is part of a growing body of research on the effect of visitors in zoos. The researchers hope that their findings will help improve the welfare of zoo animals and the experience of zoo visitors.