The Effects of Human-Animal Interaction on Mammals

Author(s): Lydia Bradshaw

Mentor(s): Audrey Butler, Honors College


This is my oral presentation and slideshow for my working research project that I began in my Honors 110 class at the beginning of the fall 2020 semester at George Mason University. My project is about the effect human-animal interaction has on mammals within accredited United States zoos. The presentation includes the methodologies from the studies used in the project. As well as, the findings from each study, and what could be concluded from the results. The presentation closed with the identification of a research gap, and a proposal that could yield answers to fill the gap. This presentation was created for my Honors 110 Research and Inquiry class, and has been further worked on and edited for the OSCAR Virtual Celebration and Scholarship that is done at the end of the semester.

Video Transcript

Hi, my name is Lydia Bradshaw, I’m a Freshman in Mason’s Honors College, and I will be presenting my working research project that I began in my Honors 110 class at the start of the fall 2020 semester. So, my research question is: “What effect does human-animal interaction have on mammals within accredited U.S. zoos?” I am going to bet that a majority of my audience has visited a zoo at least once in their lifetime. But would I assume that? Well, “it has been estimated by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) that over 600 million people visit zoos each year!” And even 600 million people could be an underestimation. When we visit a zoo, it is typical for us to look at the animals from our own perspective. However, have we ever considered how the animals perceive us? In order to study how mammals in zoos view us, there are three common approaches researchers follow. There is observational, epidemiological, and historical. Observational methods are frequently performed to watch the behaviors and activity of mammals within zoos. The observational approach tends to yield qualitative data, which is not always as reliable due to the fact that what we see with our eyes can be deceiving. However, there have been times where observational study was done, but then was taken and coded into quantitative data. The study used to yield more quantitative data and incorporates observational study is the epidemiological approach. The epidemiological approach focuses on both the mammals’ behaviors and welfare. This type of study involves approaches such as recording videos and coding the animals’ activity into statistics, and collecting the fecal matter of the mammals. Lastly, the historical method, which are typically reviews and historical analyses done to provide context on the existence of zoos in human societies, and how they have either improved or downgraded since past years. There were four studies I used for my research project, and all four included the observational and epidemiological approach. As well as, they all used the same human-animal interaction, which was human visitation and observance. There was one case study that was on two jaguars. And then the rest were multi-institutional studies, which one was on polar bears, one was on clouded leopards, and then one was on elephants. So… what were my findings? From these studies I found that the jaguars and clouded leopards experienced negative behaviors and welfare when there was an increase in zoo visitation. Both the jaguars and clouded leopards studied were reported performing stereotypic behavior. The jaguars were also much more aggressive to each other, and or hid a lot when there was an abundance of people at their exhibit. The clouded leopards showed unhealthy behaviors such as harming themselves by gnawing on their tails and even pulling out their own fur when visitor density was high. These studies clearly show the negative effect human-interaction can have on zoo animals. However, the study on elephants and polar bears showed that neither mammal minded a large number of visitors, and instead other factors effected their welfare and behavior. Elephants are very altruistic animals, with emotions quite similar to humans. They actually found enjoyment in seeing humans outside their exhibits, and their welfare and behavior was only affected by the management care and lack of socialization. Polar bears, too, need more socialization. They also are not naturally used to seeing humans, and thus do not mind when there are many visitors. However, they do tend to pace more often because they cannot see outside their exhibit as far as they would like, and need a larger space. This data was found through the decoding of videography and the testing of fecal matter. The graph on the left shows the fecal corticoids of four different clouded leopards. Fecal corticoids are when a researcher collects the fecal matter of the animal and tests their samples to convert into quantitative data of both their adrenaline and stress levels. So, the graph displays the amount of stress and adrenaline each clouded leopard had in a span of 43 days, to then use to compare to visitor intensity on those days. The graph on the right shows the results from videography that was taken of the polar bears and converted to quantitative data. This allowed for the researchers to calculate the percent of visible time of the polar bears, and what behavior they performed during the times they were visible. So, this shows that the polar bears’ stereotypic pacing was lower than they had hypothesized. So… what did I conclude from all this research? From these four studies and their findings I was able to conclude that humans have both negative and positive effects on mammals within U.S. accredited zoos. However, there a many other factors that contribute to the poor behavior and welfare of mammals, not just the visitors. But, in the end there is so much more humans can do to improve the lives of the animals within zoos, and to continue improving and bettering for the future of zoos. All the studies and findings used in my research included human-animal interaction, but none of the studies I found that were relevant to my topic specifically focused on the effect of visitors. Which is why I would like to propose using the visitor effect approach for further research to receive much more concise results on whether visitors truly play a large part in mammal welfare and behavior in zoos. This method would allow for better understanding on how to move forward with zoos or if we need to begin changing them to be like wildlife preserves and sanctuaries. As Steve Irwin once said, “if we can teach people about wildlife, they will be touched. Share my wildlife with me. Because humans want to save things that they love”. And of course, my citations for my references, because you should always cite! A shout out to all of those who helped me with this project, and I hope you all enjoyed this presentation. Thank you!

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