The Visitor Effect on Zoo Animals: Implications and Opportunities for Zoo Animal Welfare

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Sally L. Sherwen, Paul H. Hemsworth
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Achieving and maintaining high standards of animal welfare is critical to the success of
a modern zoo. Research has shown that an animal’s welfare is highly dependent on how various
individual animal factors (e.g., species traits, genetics, temperament and previous experience) interact
with environmental features (e.g., social grouping, enclosure design and sensory environment).
One prominent feature of the zoo environment is the presence of visitors. Visitor contact can be
unpredictable and intense, particularly in terms of auditory and visual interaction. Depending on an
animal’s perception of this interaction, visitors can have either negative, neutral or positive impacts
on zoo animal behaviour and welfare. This paper reviews the literature on the implications and
potential opportunities of human-zoo animal interactions on animal behaviour and welfare, with the
aim of stimulating interest, understanding and exploration of this important subject. The literature to
date presents a mixed range of findings on the topic. It is possible this variation in the responses
of zoo animals to visitors may be due to species-specific differences, the nature and intensity of
the visitor interactions, enclosure design, and individual animal characteristics. Analysing these
studies and better understanding animal preferences and motivations can provide insight into what
animals find negatively and positively reinforcing in terms of visitor contact in a specific zoo setting.
This understanding can then be applied to either safeguard welfare in cases where visitors can
have a negative impact, or, conversely, it can be applied to highlight opportunities to encourage
animal-visitor interaction in situations where animals experience positive emotions associated with
visitor interaction.


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