26th May 2023

A recent study carried out by Harper Adams University and Nottingham Trent University has been shared by national media recently, with the common headline - “Elephants enjoy zoo visitors, study suggests”, but in reality the study clearly demonstrates that animals in zoos are bored and miserable for the majority of the time and a few may be slightly less bored and miserable for short periods of time due to the distraction of people walking by and gawping at them.

As a charity opposed to the use of animals held captive for human entertainment, which has researched and scrutinised many peer reviewed articles surrounding the physical and mental challenges animals face in captive environments such as zoos and aquariums, this very misleading headline concerned us greatly.

When delving deeper into the full content of the paper, published in the ‘Animals’ journal, it became irrefutably clear that the misleading headlines carried by the media were based on limited evidence and small sample sizes, and taken completely out of context.

The research focused on previous studies which explored the various ways in which visitors impacted on the behaviour of over 250 species held in zoos, and stated in the results that there were 302 interpretations gathered from the research as a whole. They were as follows: 161 (54%) neutral, 64 (21%) were negative, 64 (21%) were ‘unclear’ and only 13 (4%) positive. In other words 96% of interactions were not positive. The fact that the media has focused on the smallest “positives” figure to spin a narrative that zoos are appropriate environments for animals is shocking.  

From examining the data in the paper, it appears that only elephants and parrots exhibited more positive reactions to visitors than negative or neutral ones – which was seemingly classified by the reduction in repetitive behaviour displayed by the animals when in the presence of visitors - and the sample size was notably small. Indeed the authors concluded that the results for both elephants and parrots should be treated with caution due to the small sample size. Every other species for which data was presented was negatively impacted, or the outcome was neutral. Amphibians and reptiles had more negative outcomes than would be expected by chance indicating that zoos are not appropriate environments for these animals. In the case of scaled reptiles and frogs, it was even noted that “visitors could potentially be perceived as a threat” and that those animals often reacted to that effect.  

Many negative behaviours were displayed by flightless birds, odd and even-toed ungulates, marsupials, tuatara, ostriches and hedgehogs.

Furthermore, any positive responses to visitor interactions seemingly displayed by “penguins, jaguars, grizzly bears, polar bears, cheetahs, servals, banteng and black tailed prairie dogs” mentioned in the paper, fail to clarify that positive responses were in fact not the most frequently observed when researching these specific species, and that the negative reactions outweigh the positive. The study also failed to present or discuss any alternative explanations for the small number of positive reactions to visitor presence. There is also insufficient data on the impact of ‘physical encounters’ or ‘animal ambassador encounters’ where animals come into close proximity of or indeed are held by or touched by visitors. We maintain that such encounters are stressful for the animals and should be prohibited. 

Elephants are mentioned widely in the paper and associated articles as having a positive reaction to visitors.  Yet the “reduced stereotypies” the study mentions were actually most evident during feeding time. Many animals, regardless of the insufficient surroundings they find themselves in, are motivated by hunger and food. Their positive reaction to being presented with treats or a meal, cannot be reasonably attributed to the person offering that treat or meal.  As already stated above, the authors of the paper themselves state that the data on elephants should be treated with caution, due to the small sample size. Parrots, just like elephants, are highly intelligent and social animals, with complex welfare needs. If they reacted in any way positively to human interaction, this is most likely as a result of enhanced stimulation unlike the rest of the time when many resort to feather plucking and other forms of mutilation due to boredom. 

Furthermore, previous research, including the ten year study commissioned by the government as part of their wider reform on zoo licensing, has shown time and time again that elephants suffer in zoos. Captive elephants live shorter lives (on average) than wild elephants, they have lower reproductive success, higher still birth rates, higher infant (calf less than 5 years old) mortality, many exhibit zoochosis (stereotypic behaviour such as swaying), which is essentially debilitating mental trauma, and many have painful health issues such as arthritis and joint and foot damage, as a direct result of their lives in captivity. Captive elephants are also more susceptible to diseases such as endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV), which killed 2 year-old Asian elephant Umesh in Zoo Zurich in 2022.   

If the small number of individual elephants included in this study derived  some small benefit from visitors during certain forced interactions, and as a result of their inherent lack of natural stimulation, this is by far outweighed by the many other health and and welfare issues caused by their incarceration in zoos. It’s time to stop the breeding and keeping of elephants in captivity.

The study even states that it acknowledges how “zoo visitors are often aspects of an animal’s environment that animals cannot control and are identified as a potential stressor” with many animals showing “increased vigilance and stereotypies” when human interaction is presented to them. This study was flawed at the outset as it starts on the implied premise that zoos are good for animals.The reality is, there is no need for zoos in 2023 and beyond, and locking animals away for human entertainment is a wholly unnecessary practice that should be a thing of the past. Zoos can never provide appropriate environments for any animals but are especially problematic for big animals like elephants and big cats.

The media have massively misled the public by promoting this study as a positive outcome for animals held captive in zoos, rather than using it to highlight the damaging and unnatural reality animals must endure in the name of entertainment. A more appropriate headline would have been ‘all animals in zoos are miserable and bored, but some slightly less so when offered food or otherwise distracted by visitors”.

Don’t believe the zoo propaganda. Find out the truth about zoos and our No More Zoo Secrets campaign here!