Should live animals be used for education shows in zoos?

Baird, B.A, Kuhar, C.W, Lukas, K.E, Amendolagine, L.A, Fuller, G.A, Nemet, J, Willis, M.A, & Schook, M.W. (2016). Program animal welfare: Using behavioral and physiological measures to assess the well-being of animals used for education programs in zoos. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 176, 150-162. 

Many animals are used in educational displays within zoos.  These are known to have beneficial aspects for the zoos, visitors and conservation programmes, but how do they affect the animals involved? This study used specie-specific behavioural and physiological measures to find out. 

It has been observed in recent decades that the use of live animals in interactive programmes within zoos has been successful in increasing visitors’ participation, interest and empathy for that particular species. Additionally, they have been shown to increase public concern for, and knowledge about, wild animals and conservation in general. As such, they are considered to be a valid educational tool. However, less is known about their effect on the animals involved. This study investigated whether inclusion in this type of learning approach could have a positive or negative impact on an animal’s welfare. 

The study was split into two experiments. The first looked at whether there was a difference in the welfare of armadillos treated in three different ways: those used for education purposes, those kept in exhibits and those kept out of the public’s eye (off-exhibits). The second (using armadillos, hedgehogs and red-tailed hawks) examined the effect of handling on an individual’s welfare. This was done by comparing the welfare of individuals during periods of being used for education, periods of not being used at all, and periods of being used for education once again. For both experiments, welfare was determined by various species-specific behavioural and physiological measures.  Faecal glucocorticoid metabolites (FGM) was used as the physiological measure, and this study further validated it as a non-invasive indicator of stress.  

No specific education effects, but frequent handling increased stress

From the first experiment, it was seen that an individual’s purpose, be it education, exhibit or off-exhibit, did not have a significant effect on their welfare. Similarly, in the second experiment, there was no effect of being handled specifically for education. However, in both experiments, the amount of handling overall did have an impact on welfare. For example, an increase in handling resulted in an increase in FGM in all three species, suggesting that handling can be stressful. Frequent handling was also associated with an increase in undesirable behavior in armadillos. 

Furthermore, the researchers noted that the type and depth of substrate, and the size of the enclosures also had an effect on the behavioural and physiological welfare indicators. Overall, this suggests that it is not specifically detrimental for an animal to be used for education purposes, but that it is recommended to limit handling times and to ensure that great care is taken in designing animal enclosures.

World Animal Protection’s view 

This study shows that whilst it is important and beneficial to provide zoo visitors with educational programs, the needs and well-being of the individual animals are paramount and must be considered. Research like this not only assesses the impact of education programmes, but also provides information on husbandry and handling effects too – all of which can affect animal welfare.