Humans and animals interact in different ways, and in a zoo setting, these kinds of interactions take many forms. The animals interact with the zookeepers who care for them, the animal welfare researchers who monitor them, the zoo staff who work around them, and the visitors who come to see them.
Depending on the situation, interactions with humans can be viewed by the animals as negative, neutral or positive and over time, if a certain type is most prevalent, can result in a corresponding relationship between animals and humans.
One important factor that influences the type of relationship that develops is how animals perceive humans, which is influenced by what species they are, their individual temperaments and past experiences. Some species, and some individuals, are more fearful of humans and will avoid them as much as possible. Others may see humans as something of interest. However, our behavior when we are around them can still influence how they are feeling, and if our actions are perceived as a threat or something that creates stress, the animal’s experience becomes negative.
The work zookeepers do is so critical to ensuring animals living in zoos experience good welfare. They create positive interactions through actions like feeding and positive reinforcement training, and this helps to establish positive relationships. Having these positive relationships with the humans with whom they interact the most can help the animals to be more comfortable in situations that could be stressful.
Understanding how we impact animals through our actions is incredibly important. We are ultimately responsible for ensuring each individual animal at the zoo has great welfare and we can take steps to do just that. Each one of us can treat every animal we encounter, whether it be at the zoo, in our neighborhoods and in our homes with respect, appreciating that they have needs and that our behavior can affect them.
When you visit the zoo, enjoy watching the animals living their lives, know that they are sensitive to what is happening around them, and share the same sense of awe and privilege I feel knowing that my actions can help them feel comfortable and safe.
– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.