Understanding impacts of zoo visitors: Quantifying behavioural changes of two popular zoo species during COVID-19 closures

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Ellen Williams, Anne Carter, Jessica Rendle, Samantha Ward
Applied Animal Behaviour Science
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Visitors are normally a prominent and constant feature in a zoo animals’ environment with more than 700 million people visiting zoos and aquariums worldwide, annually. Animal-visitor interactions can be enriching and stimulating and are now considered within the Five Domains of animal welfare assessment. Zoo closures as a result of COVID-19 provided a unique opportunity to monitor the impact of abrupt and prolonged removal of visitors on two popular zoo species. Data were collected at four facilities (n = 3 slender-tailed meerkats, n = 1 African penguin) during COVID-19 zoo closures and up to one month following reopening to the public. Meerkats showed increased positive social interactions, increased alert behaviours, and reduced environmental interactions in the first month post-opening, as compared to closure periods. They also used more of their enclosures during periods of closure and spent longer than would be expected in zones furthest from visitor viewing areas when facilities reopened. African penguins showed no behavioural change between open and closure periods. Enclosure usage during both observation periods was relatively even and no differences were observed in enclosure use between open and closure periods. These results will enable an advanced understanding of the impact that people have on the behaviour of zoo animals, which has ramifications for animals used in close encounters and other ‘visitor experiences’ in the future. Understanding relationships between animals and people is applicable in all managed animal settings. The results from this study are of practical use in managing visitor access to animals moving forwards, including enclosure location and design, to ensure a positive visitor experience that does not negatively impact animal behaviour.


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