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Meerkats react positively to return of zoo visitors after lockdown, research suggests

Posted 1 March

“This work is extremely important in future evidence-based approaches to the management of zoo animals, including consideration of enclosure location and design and ensuring positive visitor experiences which do not negatively impact on animal behaviour and welfare.”

A family of meerkats watch inquisitively from their vantage point on a log.

The centre of attention? Dr Ellen Williams’ research examines how meerkats have been reacting to the return of zoo visitors after last year’s lockdown.

Meerkats that may be used to interacting with zoo visitors reacted positively but cautiously to the sudden return of people after lockdown, a new study suggests.

Researchers – including Harper Adams University’s new Lecturer in Animal Behaviour and Welfare, Dr Ellen Williams - studied the behaviour of the animals at three British zoos, both during the first lockdown one year ago, when there were suddenly no visitors, and then for a month after zoos reopened to the public.

They found that slender tailed meerkats showed increased positive social interactions with one another, such as play and social grooming, once visitors returned.

At some zoos there was an increase in positive human-animal interactions too, the experts in animal behaviour at Harper Adams University, Twycross Zoo, and Nottingham Trent University found.

Meerkats also showed an increase in alert behaviours such as increased vigilance, according to the study published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

Researchers say this could be indicative of natural curiosity in meerkats, particularly after a long time of not seeing visitors.

Visitors are normally a prominent and constant feature in a zoo animals’ environment, with more than 700 million people visiting zoos and aquariums worldwide each year.

Ellen, who specialises in applied animal behaviour and welfare, gained her PhD in elephant social behaviour before working at several Higher Education institutions as both a lecturer and research fellow.

Speaking about the most recent findings, she said: “Meerkats are a popular species in terms of presence in zoos and are considered to be species that visitors are keen to see and are often used as ‘ambassador’ species, coming into close contact with the public through personal experience or encounter programmes.

“This work is extremely important in future evidence-based approaches to the management of zoo animals, including consideration of enclosure location and design and ensuring positive visitor experiences which do not negatively impact on animal behaviour and welfare.”

Her fellow researcher Dr Samantha Ward, based at Nottingham Trent University, added: “The presence of indicators of positive welfare within the group, including positive social interactions and engaging in positive human-animal interactions, suggest the return of visitors was a positive and engaging experience for the meerkats.

“It’s not always clear how certain animals that are used to humans will react to the changes that we are all currently experiencing but it was promising to see that for these meerkats, they were glad to welcome back the visitors.”

The researchers suggest more work needs to be undertaken over a longer period of time to better understand how certain species adjust to zoo visitors and the true nature of the effects of visitors upon animal behaviour.

Ellen is now looking to build further links between her research in zoos and that of colleagues in the farming sector through her role at Harper Adams University.

She added: “I love the whole ethos of Harper, and I really like the applied nature of the courses; it fits with the nature of my research in applied animal behaviour.

“I am hopeful I can bring some zoo expertise to the courses, which will complement the areas of expertise of other staff. I am also looking forward to being able to work with researchers in the farm animal sector and looking at how we can share ideas in relation to animal behaviour on farm and in zoos – I think we can learn lots from each other!”

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