Which animals like zoo visitors and which don’t according to scientists - including elephants and penguins

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Does your favourite zoo animal like visitors or not? Scientists weigh in on which species enjoy human contact.

Scientists from two different universities have found out which animals like zoo visitors and which ones don’t – but is your favourite on the list? Animal behaviour experts at Nottingham Trent University and Harper Adams University explored the various ways in which visitors impacted behaviour across over 250 species in zoos. 

They looked at more than 100 previous research papers to explore this. Elephant fans are in luck as they responded positively to visitors. Cockatoos were also among the animals who enjoyed visitors, as well as penguins and polar bears.

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Repetitive behaviours can indicate boredom and this decreased in the presence of larger numbers of visitors, researchers found. After public feedings, elephants increased their foraging and had decreased levels of inactivity.

Amphibians shy away from human visitors

While some animals were indifferent to human visitors, one type in particular showed negative behaviour towards visitors and preferred them to stay away. Dr Ellen Williams, lead author for the Harper Adams University study, said: “We reviewed the published literature on visitor effects on non-primates, and then looked at how animals responded.

“Yes, there were some negative responses, but in terms of a species group level, the only animal type that showed negative responses more than chance were amphibians. That was however based on one paper though, and it was during Covid, so it’s important not to read too much into it.”

Animals born and raised in zoos are used to human visitors

While the impact of human visitors on animals was largely negative, this varied largely by species. Dr Samantha Ward, a zoo animal welfare scientist at Nottingham Trent University’s School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences, said: “Some animal species have been born and raised in zoos and so have likely become used to the presence of humans.

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“Zoo visitors are often aspects of a zoo animal’s environment that animals cannot control and as such can be stressful, although some species appear to show good adaptability for the changing conditions of visitors. There can be a lot of variation in stimuli from visitors in terms of their behaviour, the noise they make and the way they interact with the animals.

“We have identified that species show varied responses to people in zoos – some cope well, others not so well. We have robust methods to measure animal welfare in zoos. Animal responses are attributed to various factors and recognising what these may be is important to improve welfare.

“In elephants and birds, it was encouraging to see a reduction in those repetitive behaviours towards something more positive in the presence of people, although the absence of change in the majority of species was also really good, because it suggests enclosure design is changing to better support animals in responding to visitors.”

The animals who like zoo visitors

  • Elephants

  • Cockatoos

  • Penguins

  • Jaguars

  • Grizzly bears

  • Polar bears

  • Cheetahs

  • Sevals

  • Bantend

  • Black-tailed prairie dogs

  • Long-billed corella

The animals who DON’T like zoo visitors

  • Hedgehogs

  • Frogs

  • Flightless birds

  • Odd and even-toed ungulates

  • Marsupials

  • Ostriches

  • Tuatara

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