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How did pandemic lockdowns affect zoo animals?

Human-animal interactions and the impact on animals of the presence of zoo visitors are crucial for zoo animal welfare, with many studies providing evidence that different species or even individual animals respond differently to different humans. Now, a multi-institutional team of experts in animal behaviors has investigated how the closure of the zoos at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic changed the behavioral patterns of bonobos, chimpanzees, western lowland gorillas, and olive baboons at Twycross Zoo and the Knowsley Safari.

The analysis revealed that, during the first lockdown, primates spent more time alone and resting, engaged in more sexual and dominance behaviors, and ate less.

“Primates are some of the most cognitively advanced species in zoos and their interactions with visitors are complex,” said study senior author Samantha Ward, a zoo animal welfare scientist at Nottingham Trent University. “A limitation to understanding how visitors can affect behavior of animals in zoos and parks is that they rarely close to the public for prolonged periods, so this provided us with a unique opportunity.”

As visitors started returning to the zoos after the pandemic restrictions were lifted, the scientists found that bonobos and gorillas spent less time alone and resting, chimpanzees ate more, and olive baboons engaged less in sexual and dominance behaviors, while approaching visitors’ cars more frequently than they had the ranger’s vehicle when the park was closed. 

While it is difficult to accurately assess which animal experiences were positive, negative, or neutral for specific animals, the return of visitors appeared to stimulate the chimpanzees and the baboons, while bonobos and gorillas also started to spend less solitary time – features which could be seen as positive. However, the reduction in resting behavior in more sedentary gorillas – which began altering their enclosures most likely to reduce potential overstimulation – could also suggest they were disrupted by the return of the visitors.

“Our study showed the varied ways in which visitors can influence the behavior of primates in captivity. Behavioral changes and changes in enclosure use in the presence of visitors highlights the adaptability of zoo species to their environments. Provision of environments which enable animals to actively adapt in this manner is really important for their welfare,” explained study lead author Ellen Williams, a zoo animal welfare specialist at the Harper Adams University.

“This collaborative study was really important in enabling us to understand the impacts of the closures on zoo animals. Future work could involve looking at the impact on a wider range of species in both zoos and safari parks as well as differences among individual animals,” she concluded.

The study is published in the journal Animals.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer  

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