Abstract: 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.
Photo credit: Memphis Zoo