01 March 2021

Meerkats react positively to return of zoo visitors after lockdown – study

01 March 2021

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 studied the behaviour of the animals at three British zoos both during the first lockdown 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 Nottingham Trent University, Harper Adams University and Twycross Zoo found.

The presence of indicators of positive welfare within the group... suggest the return of visitors was a positive and engaging experience for the meerkats

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.

Dr Samantha Ward, a scientist in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences, said: “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.”

She added: “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.”

Dr Ellen Williams, a former NTU researcher now based at Harper Adams University, 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.”

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.

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