Zoos and aquariums have seen a rapid growth in interactive experiences in recent years. From walk-through, swim-through or drive-through exhibits and shows, to direct animal contact that includes activities such as touch pools, touch paddocks and petting areas, the interactive experiences on offer vary. Their popularity has increased as they are deemed to demonstrate an engaging educational experience, with education being a key objective for the modern zoological collection. Although animal interactions are popular, the welfare impact of such interactions is still relatively unknown. Many facilities do support positive interaction programmes that can be rewarding for both the animal and visitor, but equally there are some that demonstrate only minimal planning having been given to how the animal’s welfare may be affected by different experiences.
Legally, any animal interactive programmes a zoological collection offers should comply with all applicable regional, national and international legislation. However, in many countries there are no specific regulations pertaining to such programmes and as such, institutions are reliant on either other legislative standards that may have an impact on such programmes (health and safety etc.) or regionally specific guidelines from their respective regional zoo association. If the latter do not hold such guidelines, the zoological collection either provides their own regulations or has none.
A significant number of different species are on offer for animal interactions in the accredited zoo community, ranging from elephants to amphibians. But with this diversity comes the complexity of ensuring that each and every animal used in an interaction has a high standard of welfare, before, during and after an interaction takes place. Welfare can be described as the state that an animal experiences. This will naturally vary throughout its life, just like it does for humans. An animal may experience positive, negative or neutral emotional states and it is the balance between these subjective experiences that can influence an individual animal’s ‘quality of life’.
An animal-human interaction can be considered as any form of close or direct contact between that animal and a person. Due to the nature of zoos, animals are usually always in close proximity to visitors, but sometimes this is extended further by the provision of walk-throughs or direct contact during shows or educational or outreach events. The challenge with animal interactions is that different species and individuals will vary in their response to experiences. Traditional welfare indicators that focus on the health of an animal are not necessarily the most reliable indicators, but behavioural responses such as stress, in some species, can also be unrecognisable. Any negative experiences can have lasting impressions on an animal’s life – exposure to chronic stress can permanently change the brain structure, leading to mental problems such as anxiety and depression disorders later in life. The result is that seemingly harmless activities can result in abnormal behaviours, and resonate throughout the whole life of that animal.
That does not mean however, that all interactions are wrong, or even negative for an animal’s welfare. Increased activity or the ability to demonstrate natural behaviours such as flying in bird of prey displays, can positively impact welfare. Equally, some animals may thrive on certain interactions if appropriate training and handling is applied. Keeper-animal interactions can stimulate improved relationships between the animal and zoo staff and offer opportunities to apply training that supports better animal care and management.
The challenge for the modern zoo is to meet and exceed recommended welfare standards pertaining to animal interactions, while providing engaging and educational-based opportunities. Further evaluation on the impact of interactions is required, particularly to those species predominantly used in direct contact interactions, such as snakes, young animals and dangerous species. For animals used in shows, it is vital that consideration is given to the training, off-show enclosure facilities and behaviours demonstrated.
Zoos today should be making a commitment to end the use of animals in interactions that have an obvious detrimental impact on the animal’s welfare. Their focus should be on exploring innovative interventions based on exhibit design and identified visitor needs, that can still increase positive visitor-animal interactions without the need for direct contact opportunities.