Study examines zoo animal and keeper relationships

Zoo animals appear to dictate the relationship with their zookeeper – but keeper attitudes towards them also play a big part in how an animal behaves, according to new research.

Zoo animals appear to dictate the relationship with their zookeeper – but keeper attitudes towards them also play a big part in how an animal behaves, according to new research.

A study involving the collaboration of zoo animal behaviour experts at Nottingham Trent University and Taronga Zoo in Australia found that the individual characteristics of zoo animals contributed significantly to the keeper-animal interaction and how the keeper-animal relationship developed.

It was also found that zoo animals responded faster to keepers who felt positively about them and had a greater knowledge and experience of that species.

It is hoped that the findings from the study, published in the journal PLOS ONE , will help to improve understanding of human-animal interactions in zoos and provide a better understanding of how zoo animal husbandry influences animal welfare.

Researchers investigated almost 30 zookeepers’ relationships with black rhinos, Chapman’s zebras and Sulawesi crested black macaques in six zoos in the UK and United States. This involved observing the keepers interacting with the animals during their daily routines, as well as asking the keepers about their attitudes, knowledge and education via a questionnaire.

Animals were timed to see how quickly, or slowly, they responded to different keepers, with the expectation that those with a faster response time had a better keeper-animal relationship.

Different relationships are clearly formed between zookeepers and animals, based on their interactions

Dr Samantha Ward, Nottingham Trent University



The research team found that animals performed tasks more quickly for the keepers who felt positively about the animals, and had a greater species knowledge.

It was also found that the same animal responded differently to different zookeepers, highlighting that the animal dictated the human-animal interaction.

While the impact of unfamiliar people - or zoo visitors – on zoo animal behaviour has been studied extensively, the impact of familiar people – zookeepers or ‘stockpeople’ – is a new area of research. ‘Stockmanship’ is a term historically used to describe the management of agricultural animals; a good stockperson representing someone who safely, effectively, and in a low-stress manner, manages animals.

"Different relationships are clearly formed between zookeepers and animals, based on their interactions," said Dr Samantha Ward, Zoo Biology Course Leader and Lecturer in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences.

She said: "Our results suggest that these interactions are controlled by the animals but the zookeepers’ species knowledge – such as animal biology and behaviour – and work experience, are vital, along with a positive attitude towards the animals zookeepers work with.

"Positive zookeepers lead to positive animal behaviour, and as such, these findings could hold real importance in terms of helping to improve the welfare of zoo animals. Certain qualities should be investigated before selecting keepers to work in zoos and safari parks and emphasis should be placed on the importance of job satisfaction and pairing of keepers with the right species within this busy and varying job role."

Researcher Dr Vicky Melfi, Behavioural Biologist at Taronga Zoo, said: "Those of us who work closely with animals are aware that often it feels like they are shaping our behaviour, but it is very interesting to be able to empirically demonstrate that the animals appear to be driving interactions with humans, rather than the other way round."

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Study examines zoo animal and keeper relationships

Published on 5 November 2015
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences

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