Agriculture and Food Systems - Theses

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    Unravelling Zoo Visitor-Penguin Interactions: Effects on Little Penguin Welfare and Visitor Attitudes and Experience
    Chiew, Samantha Joanne ( 2021)
    Modern zoos are heavily reliant on the maintenance of high standards of animal welfare and the provision of positive visitor experiences to operate successfully as zoo-based conservation organisations. Several factors, both animal and environment related, influence the welfare of zoo animals and visitor experience. However, one major influencing factor has been visitor-animal interactions. Understanding the effects of visitor-animal interactions in zoos is critical because zoo animals can encounter frequent, and sometimes intense, interactions with unfamiliar humans that may compromise both animal welfare and visitor experience. Extensive research over the last several decades has shown that visitors can influence the behaviour and welfare of a range of zoo species. These effects have varied from stressful, enriching, or innocuous. However, the inconsistent findings have limited our understanding of the visitor-animal relationship. Furthermore, limited research has been conducted to identify the effects of visitors on understudied taxa such as penguins. The effects of zoo animals on visitor attitudes and their experience also remains poorly understood. Hence, the aim of this thesis was to identify the effects of regulating visitor-penguin interactions on a rarely studied species, little penguins (Eudyptula minor), and how these interactions affect visitor attitudes and their experience. A combination of animal behaviour and stress physiology as well as visitor behaviour, attitudes and experience were measured, using an experimental approach to examine the zoo visitor-penguin relationship. A total of three zoo sites were involved: Melbourne Zoo (Victoria, Australia), Taronga Zoo (New South Wales, Australia) and Wellington Zoo (Wellington, New Zealand). At each zoo, different aspects of visitor contact were regulated as a result of the differing enclosure designs. At Melbourne Zoo, the effects of regulating visitor viewing proximity and behaviour were examined. It was found that the close viewing proximity of visitors primarily affected little penguins. This was shown by an increase in the number of penguins vigilant, huddling and avoiding the visitor viewing area and a reduction in the number of penguins surface swimming when visitors were in close viewing proximity. However, no effect on little penguin faecal glucocorticoid metabolite (FGM) concentrations was found. There was no detrimental impact of regulating the interactions between visitors and penguins using a physical barrier on visitor attitudes and their experience. Also, a positive relationship between penguin behaviour and visitor attitudes and experience was found. The more visible, active, and close to the visitor viewing area penguins were, the more positive visitor attitudes and experience were at Melbourne Zoo. At Taronga Zoo, the effects of obstructing a single visitor viewing window was examined. Unobstructed visitor contact was found to reduce the presence of little penguins, reduce the number of penguins preening in the water and increase the number of penguins vigilant in the area near the main viewing window when this window was uncovered. There was also a general preference by the penguins for the corner area which was visually hidden from visitors. These results provide evidence of some avoidance of visitors by little penguins at Taronga Zoo. Also, no effect of regulating visitor contact using a visual barrier was found on visitor attitudes and their experience at Taronga Zoo. FGM concentrations were not measured at Taronga Zoo. Lastly, at Wellington Zoo, the effects of the presence and absence of visitors were examined. The presence of visitors was found to reduce the percentage of penguins observed close to the visitor viewing pier which was identified as the main viewing area used by visitors. But there was little effect on other penguin behaviours and FGM concentrations. These results suggest that there was an increase in avoidance of visitors when present by the penguins which suggests close visitor contact may be fear-provoking for these penguins. The results of this thesis demonstrate that zoo visitors may negatively affect zoo-housed little penguins where visitors may be perceived as fear-provoking, as indicated by increases in behaviours indicative of fear. But the magnitude of the penguins’ fear response to visitors varied across zoos. This may be the result of influencing factors including enclosure design, previous experience, genetics, and weather. The most pronounced fear response by little penguins towards visitors was found at Melbourne Zoo, followed by Wellington Zoo and lastly, Taronga Zoo. Penguin fear responses to visitors were most pronounced at Melbourne and Wellington Zoo likely because of the main viewing locations for visitors were generally positioned above the pool. This type of viewing position provided opportunities, if visitors chose, to closely approach and loom over the pool edge which may have been perceived as threatening by the little penguins. In comparison at Taronga Zoo, visitors were positioned below the surface of the pool. Therefore, results from this thesis indicate that the close viewing proximity of visitors, particularly from above, is a common characteristic of visitor contact that little penguins may find fear-provoking. The overall effect of visitors on the welfare of zoo-housed penguins is somewhat unclear. Despite fear responses towards visitors by little penguins were apparent when visitor contact was uncontrolled, there was no effect of the treatments imposed on FGM concentrations. One interpretation of the lack of treatment effects on FGM concentrations at Melbourne Zoo and Wellington Zoo is that the penguin behavioural responses such as avoidance may have been an effective adaptive response in ameliorating the need for a sustained physiological stress response arising from close visitor contact. Nevertheless, close visitor viewing proximity may be fear-provoking for little penguins and can be regulated by positioning visitors further away from the enclosure boundary or by reducing the perceived close proximity of visitors for little penguins. This will result in improvements in penguin welfare and have no detrimental effect on visitor attitudes and experience, which were overall positive and enhanced by penguins displaying more active behaviours and less behaviours indicative of fear. However, it is unclear whether these positive attitudes and experience of visitors affected the way visitors behaved towards little penguins. The results reported in this thesis provide what is believed to be the first comprehensive study investigating the zoo visitor-penguin relationship from both the animal and visitor aspects. This research expands our knowledge on the zoo visitor-penguin relationship, indicating the importance of examining visitor-animal relationships from the animal and visitor perspectives and identifies some practical measures that zoos can utilise to improve the management of visitor-penguin interactions.