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How zoo visitors judge animals’ happiness

At zoos and aquariums around the world, the one factor that contributes most to visitors’ satisfaction is ‘seeing animals that are well cared for’ (Ballantyne and Packer, 2010). With the anti-zoo lobby having brought the issue of animal welfare to the public’s attention in recent years, visitors now expect that animals in zoos will not only be well cared for and healthy but also appear to be ‘happy’. 

Although zoo veterinarians have established indicators of animal welfare, visitors are not always aware of these. It is likely that many visitors have misconceptions about the meaning of different animal behaviours, and base their evaluations of the zoo’s performance on criteria that are inaccurate or misleading.

Given the importance of visitors’ perceptions of animal welfare for their satisfaction and their willingness to support the zoo, it is necessary to understand how they evaluate animal welfare, and how this influences their emotional responses to the animals, and their satisfaction with their visit. 

Research by UQ Business School explored these issues through the reactions of visitors to the gorillas at Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. The researchers carried out a survey to investigate what indicators zoo visitors used, consciously or unconsciously, to judge the animals’ happiness, and how their assessments influenced their emotional connections with the gorillas and their satisfaction with their visit.

A combination of individual and environmental characteristics was found to predict visitors’ ratings of how “happy”, “healthy” and “well cared for” they considered the gorillas to be.

In judging happiness, visitors used criteria such as how contented, relaxed, calm, peaceful and comfortable the animals looked, how active they were, and whether they were seen to be interacting with other gorillas. Being bored or sitting alone were associated with unhappiness.

In judging health, visitors used criteria such as the appearance of being well-fed, having a good coat, being active, being clean and being in a clean environment. In judging how well cared for the animals were, visitors used a combination of environmental factors and the observed physical condition of the gorillas. Environmental factors included cleanliness, the provision of food and water, being well-maintained, having natural landscaping, a pleasant temperature, provision of play areas and spaciousness.

Quantitative analyses suggested that environmental factors had a greater influence on people’s ratings of happiness and health than they reported in open-ended questions, suggesting that these responses may be sub-conscious to some extent. 

Visitors who considered the gorillas to be “happy” were more likely to report an emotional connection with the animals, while those who considered the gorillas to be healthy and well cared for were more likely to express satisfaction with their visit.

On the basis of these findings, it was recommended that zoos should provide interpretive materials to better inform visitors’ perceptions of animal happiness and wellbeing by:

  • Explaining the individual differences between gorillas and the kinds of behaviours that are “normal” for each;
  • Helping visitors interpret solitary behaviours that give the appearance of being bored and;
  • Providing information about accurate indicators of health, in particular, how visitors can judge the appropriate size of each gorilla, signs of a healthy coat, appropriate expectations regarding activity levels, and explanations for any obvious injuries or signs of good health.

It is also important to provide a pleasant, clean and spacious environment with provision for food, water, socialisation and play areas, as visitors infer from these that the animals are well cared for, and to some extent, healthy and happy.

Are you an organisation in need to solve a business issue? Contact Jan Packer and Roy Ballantyne to know more about their work and benefit from their expertise.