There is evidence that the presence of the visiting public affects the behaviour of zoo-housed mammals. Understanding the effect of visitors is important in improving animal welfare, achieving zoo conservation goals, increasing visitor education/entertainment, and facilitating interpretation of data on zoo animal biology. A series of studies and experiments focusing on the effect of zoo visitors on captive mammal behaviour is presented. The influence of visitor density on a range of primates and large carnivores is examined. Methodological concerns regarding the operational definition of visitor density in the literature are expressed and a clarification of terms which may be helpful when comparing previous research is provided. Visitor noise data, using an objective measure of the variable, and its relationship to visitor density are also presented.
External and internal visual barriers between visitors and zoo animals were hypothesised to moderate the visitor effect and enrich the environment of the study groups. Camouflage nets mounted on the outside of enclosure viewing windows had little impact on primate or felid behaviour, with the exception of the Sumatran orangutan group, who showed a trend toward decreased social play in the presence of the external barrier. Polar bear behaviour showed evidence of an enriched environment, with trends toward increased levels of swimming and decreased levels of resting. An internal visual barrier, which prevented visitors from having visual contact with the golden lion tamarins when the nonhuman primates were behind it, was also tested and elicited more extensive trends toward behavioural change than did the nets.
Both Sumatran orangutans and zoo visitors were provided with a similar puzzle feeder in an effort to enrich the orangutan enclosure, and improve the visitor experience. It was hypothesised that the orangutans might be stimulated by watching visitors manipulate the device, but this did not occur. Orangutan use of the puzzle feeder within their enclosure was also unaffected. Olfactory stimuli were introduced into primate and felid enclosures and visitor viewing areas to investigate the role olfaction may play in the visitor effect. Although olfactory stimuli had an extensive significant effect on the behaviour of the study groups when it was introduced into the enclosure, there was little change when visitors were associated with the olfactory stimuli which suggest there may not be an olfactory visitor effect in primates or felids.
The effect of visitors on petting zoo-housed mixed-breed goats, llama, and Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs was studied and compared to their behaviour without the presence of visitors. The goats were unaffected and the llama showed only a trend toward decreased levels of sitting in the presence of visitors. The Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs were significantly affected by the presence of visitors, exhibiting decreased inactivity and social behaviour. The hypothesis that a sustained absence of visitors would result in a more intense visitor effect was tested and was not supported by the data. An additional experiment investigating the effect of visitor grooming on the petting zoo study species showed that, while visitors spent more time interacting with the animals in the grooming condition, the behaviour of the study animals indicated that they did not find visitor grooming rewarding.
Data on the interaction between visitor density and the various experimental techniques tested here indicate that visitor density may impact animal response to environmental enrichment, supporting previous findings in the literature. In the presence of visual barriers, foraging devices, and olfactory stimuli, the relationship between animal behaviour and visitor density changed significantly, both qualitatively and quantitatively. These results suggest that collecting visitor density data when testing environmental enrichment techniques could be helpful when assessing their effectiveness, ultimately improving the welfare of zoo-housed mammals. Based on the data presented here, in conjunction with the literature, a closing discussion outlines proposed refinements to the visitor effect research guidelines published by the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (2005).