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Elephants enjoy presence of zoo visitors, study shows

Elephants particularly enjoy the presence of zoo visitors a new study has suggested.


Animal behaviour experts at Nottingham Trent University and Harper Adams University investigated more than 100 previous research papers exploring the various ways in which visitors impacted behaviour across more than 250 species in zoos.

The team found significant results regarding elephants, with social activity among the animals increasing and repetitive behaviours – often indicating boredom in animals – decreasing during public feedings.

The repetitive behaviours also decreased in the presence of larger numbers of visitors, it was found and in the period after public feedings there was increased foraging by elephants and a decrease in their levels of inactivity.

The researchers also found positive effects with cockatoos, whose social behaviour was seen to increase – possibly as a result of the visitors stimulating the birds.

And another bird, the long-billed corella, spent the majority of time on busy days closer to the visitors, it was found.

Across all of the studies the interpretation of the impact of visitors was predominantly neutral, with some considered positive and negative.

Other species which displayed a positive response to visitors included penguins, jaguars, grizzly bears, polar bears, cheetahs, servals, banteng and black tailed prairie dogs.

Animal groups for whom visitors were reported to have a negative impact included flightless birds, odd and even-toed ungulates, marsupials, ostriches, tuatara and hedgehogs.

Previous research has shown how prey species that were from closed habitats such as forests, or those which had nocturnal activity patterns where they were less likely to encounter people, may make animals more fearful of humans.

The research looked specifically at non-primate species, and the majority of animals studied were mammals (56%) and birds (28%). Amphibians, reptiles, fish and invertebrates were also included.

Visitors affected species’ behaviour in a variety of ways, including their levels of activity, how they used their enclosure space, feeding, movement, rest, and changes in abnormal, vigilance and social behaviours.

Animal behaviours changed as a result of visitors in up to 38% of cases it was found.

Visitors are a prominent feature in the lives of zoo animals, with millions visiting annually across the world, and their presence can cause a range of impacts on different species.

There has been a steady increase in research into the effect of visitors in zoos over the last ten years.

“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 said: “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.

“There can be a lot of variation in stimuli from visitors in terms of their behaviour, the noise they make and the way they interact with the animals. We have identified that species show varied responses to people in zoos – some cope well, others not so well.

Dr Ellen Williams, a zoo animal welfare scientist at Harper Adams University, said: “We have robust methods to measure animal welfare in zoos. Animal responses are attributed to various factors and recognising what these may be is important to improve welfare.

“In elephants and birds it was encouraging to see a reduction in those repetitive behaviours towards something more positive in the presence of people, although the absence of change in the majority of species was also really good, because it suggests enclosure design is changing to better support animals in responding to visitors.”

Last year the researchers found that primates spent more time resting and alone, performed more sexual and dominance behaviours and ate less when zoos and safari parks were closed to the public during the first COVID-19 lockdown.

The latest study is published in the journal Animals.

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    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) received the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2021 for cultural heritage science research. It is the second time that NTU has been bestowed the honour of receiving a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its research, the first being in 2015 for leading-edge research on the safety and security of global citizens.

    The Research Excellence Framework (2021) classed 83% of NTU’s research activity as either world-leading or internationally excellent. 86% of NTU’s research impact was assessed to be either world-leading or internationally excellent.

    NTU was awarded The Times and The Sunday Times Modern University of the Year 2023 and ranked University of the Year in the Whatuni Student Choice Awards 2023. It was awarded Outstanding Support for Students 2020 (Times Higher Education Awards), University of the Year 2019 (Guardian University Awards, UK Social Mobility Awards), Modern University of the Year 2018 (Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide) and University of the Year 2017 (Times Higher Education Awards).

    NTU is the 5th largest UK institution by student numbers, with approximately 40,000 students and more than 4,400 staff located across five campuses. It has an international student population of 7,000 and an NTU community representing over 160 countries.

    Since 2000, NTU has invested £570 million in tools, technology, buildings and facilities.

    NTU is in the UK’s top 10 for number of applications and ranked first for accepted offers (2021 UCAS UG acceptance data). It is also among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and was the first UK university to sign the Social Mobility Pledge.

    NTU is ranked 2nd most sustainable university in the world in the 2022 UI Green Metric University World Rankings (out of more than 900 participating universities).

Published on 22 May 2023
  • Subject area: Animal, equine and wildlife
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences