How Visitors Affect Zoo Animal Welfare: A Global Review
Zoos and aquaria have moved beyond simply allowing visitors to observe captive wild animals in their enclosures; modern zoos are increasing the ways in which visitors can come into contact with animals. While interactions between zoo visitors and animals support the commercial goal zoos have to entertain visitors, some animal-visitor interactions (AVIs) may be harming animal welfare, on top of the more basic concerns of keeping animals in captivity.
This study sought to answer three questions surrounding the issue of AVIs: “(1) What different types of AVIs are currently being advertised by zoos and aquaria, and what are the proportions of different types? (2) Which types of AVIs are most prevalent across different geographical regions? (3) Which taxonomic groups are most prevalent in AVIs?” By studying the diversity and prevalence of AVIs in zoos and aquaria, the researchers hoped to clarify which AVIs are negatively impacting animal welfare.
To carry out this study, the researchers screened the websites of 1241 facilities comprising the World Association for Zoo and Aquariums (WAZA). The AVIs advertised by the facilities were classified as either “direct” or “indirect”. Direct AVIs involved direct physical contact with the captive animals and included activities such as feeding, petting, riding, and walking or swimming with. Indirect AVIs included activities such as non-hand feeding, cage dives, and shows and performances.
Statistical analysis revealed that 75% of the facilities included in the study promoted at least one AVI on their website. Petting the wild animals was the most common AVI overall. However, there were regional differences in which AVIs were offered. For example, hand-feeding of wild animals was a popular AVI in North America and Oceania, while opportunities to “walk with” wild animals were popular in Africa and Asia. The majority of AVIs involved mammals. Other taxonomic groups favored by AVIs included carnivores, even-toed ungulates, lizards, marsupials, etc.
Categorizing AVIs by regional preference and taxonomic groups involved was only a first step. The researchers also cited literature describing the potential benefits and harms of each AVI included in the study. For example, feeding of animals provides them with environmental enrichment, but may also result in overfeeding, introduction of toxic substances to the animal’s diet, and increased displays of aggression. The conclusion made by the researchers is that the literature on the harmful impacts of AVIs is largely incomplete, and further efforts should be made towards studying the effects human-animal contact on animal wellbeing.
Nonetheless, this study provided advocates with the important insight that zoos and aquaria are broadening the number of ways in which humans can interact with animals. If zoos are to reconcile their goals to educate visitors and protect animal welfare, they must remain cognizant of the numerous potential harms that AVIs introduce to captive wild animals, and structure policies around protecting animals from those harms, at the very least. More broadly, however, zoos should always been evaluating whether keeping animals in captivity at all is appropriate for their welfare.