When the pandemic came, zoos closed and animals began to behave differently

(ORDO NEWS) — We’ve all had to adjust during the coronavirus pandemic – even the zoo animals, who suddenly couldn’t see the crowds of visitors passing by every day. The new study shows how primates responded to these changes.

The study looked at bonobos, chimpanzees, western lowland gorillas and olive baboons and found that these animals changed their habits in a variety of ways, including the amount of time they spent resting and eating.

Interaction with visitors is believed to be critical to the welfare of animals in zoos. However, these interactions can be both positive and negative. Therefore, the researchers wanted to see the difference when there were no crowds of visitors.

“Primates are among the most cognitively advanced species in zoos and their interactions with visitors are complex,” says Samantha Ward, zoo animal welfare scientist at Nottingham Trent University (UK).

“A limitation to understanding how visitors can influence the behavior of animals in zoos and parks is that they rarely close from the public for long periods of time, so this presented us with a unique opportunity.”

Observations were made at Twycross Zoo and Knowsley Safari in the UK, both before and after visitors returned.

Over several months and several periods of zoo openings and closings, there were marked changes in primate behavior that varied by animal.

As visitors began returning to the zoo, the bonobos and gorillas spent less time alone, and the gorillas also rested less. Chimpanzees ate more and interacted more with their enclosures after zoos reopened.

The olive baboons at the safari park showed less sexual and dominant behavior after returning visitors. They also approached visitors’ cars more often than the ranger cars they saw when the park was closed.

Whether these changes were positive is harder to say.

The researchers suggest that the return of visitors stimulated the chimpanzees and baboons, while gorillas and bonobos spending less time alone could also be seen as a positive factor.

At the same time, it can be argued that gorillas, naturally more sedentary animals, were disturbed by the crowd, since they spent less time alone.

That the gorillas changed the parts of their enclosures they spent the most time in when visitors returned suggests that the animals may be managing this disruption to some degree.

“Behavioral changes and changes in the use of enclosures in the presence of visitors highlight the ability of zoos to adapt to the environment,” says zoo animal welfare researcher Ellen Williams of Harper Adams University in the UK.

“Providing an environment that allows animals to actively adapt in this way is really important for their well-being.”

The team also observed that olive baboons have a visitor threshold beyond which the animals stop being active and stimulated by passing cars at the safari park.

All of this is valuable data for researchers who know that visitors can have a variety of effects on wildlife, from making them feel camaraderie and safe to annoying or even threatening. This must be taken into account when managing and designing zoos and parks.

While there may not be any more closures for the foreseeable future, the research team wants to continue to study how visitor numbers affect animal behavior, including collecting data on more animals and on a longer time scale.

“Future work could include studying the impact on a wider range of species in both zoos and safari parks, as well as differences between individual animals,” says Williams.

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