Previous research had suggested that
high numbers of visitors are stressful for
animals, but this wasn't a solid finding.
Scientists from the University of Melbourne and Zoos Victoria have revealed that our resident Melbourne Zoo orang-utans may enjoy watching us as much as we enjoy watching them, significantly advancing our understanding of zoo animal welfare.
As part of a larger long-term study on the welfare of zoo animals, the researchers, including Professor Paul Hemsworth and Rachel Bloomfield of the University’s School of Land and Environment and the Animal Welfare Science Centre (AWSC), alongside Dr Graeme Gillespie from Zoos Victoria, studied a novel aspect of zoo animal welfare – the animal-visitor interaction.
“The literature suggests that visitors in high numbers may be stressful for zoo animals but when you look at the interpretation of these data, it is somewhat problematic. Therefore we initiated a study to evaluate the animal-visitor relationship in orang-utans,” says Professor Hemsworth, Director of the AWSC.
The team looked at the motivation of the Zoo’s five orang-utans to seek or avoid close visitor contact by using a simple preference test in which the orang-utans were offered a choice of either privacy from visitors, or exposure to visitors by manipulating the viewing area of the enclosure.
Three viewing treatments were created so that the window was either fully uncovered, the left half uncovered and the right half covered, or the left half covered and the right half uncovered. The location and orientation of the orang-utans relative to the open or closed window was noted.
“If the orang-utans find visitors stressful we would expect them to spend less time on the open half of the window and more time facing away from it,” says Professor Hemsworth. “But we found the opposite, they were attracted to the open windows, spent more time being in front of it and more time directly looking at it, which suggests that humans are attractive to orang-utans.”
“The results indicate visitors may be preferred stimuli for orang-utans and have an enriching effect on animal behaviour. This information can help the zoo industry improve enclosure design, animal welfare and visitor experience,” says Ms Bloomfield.
The work was part of Ms Bloomfield’s honours project, highlighting the importance of the collaboration between the University of Melbourne and Zoos Victoria for innovative research.
“Although this is a very promising start to the investigation of the animal-visitor relationship, this is the sort of work that needs to be done with a number of species, as the animal’s response to visitors is likely to depend on the species and the enclosure,” says Professor Hemsworth.
Original news release can be found here.