Who’s looking at who at Melbourne Zoo?

Reporter: Alistair Walsh

Thousands of people tromp through Melbourne Zoo every day, but how do meerkats, monkeys and kangaroos actually feel about being watched all day?

New research will help the Zoo modify their enclosures and keep their animal stars happy.

This story is part of a summer series produced by journalism students from RMIT University. Read more about the project.


ALISTAIR WALSH: If you go to Melbourne Zoo and watch the Orang-utans for a while it seems they really do respond to human interaction. It can be subtle but sometimes they’ll sit and watch the people watching them. It’s strangely calming. A few years ago Melbourne researchers found the Orang-utans really do prefer sitting in enclosures where they can watch people. When given a choice they chose to sit in front of viewing windows rather than hide behind a closed panel.

But how do the other residents at Melbourne Zoo feel about being watched all day? PhD student Sally Sherwen has been researching how the presence and behaviour of visitors affects various zoo animals.

SALLY SHERWEN: It’s really well established how humans affect animals we live with every day, through pets and farms. I’m applying those same models and applying them to the zoo animal situation. The next step would be to look at wild animals where’s they’re not captive at all but still interacting. We’re focussing how visitor conditions, they’re number, noise level, their behaviour, so banging on glass, sudden movements, behaviours like that, how those human conditions can affect the welfare of a range of different species.

ALISTAIR WALSH: Sally modifies the number and behaviour of visitors and then analyses how the animal reacts as well as levels of stress hormones in its droppings. Meerkats are one of the most popular attractions for kids. They’re so popular in fact that the zoo built a meerkat enclosure inside the children’s hospital.

SALLY SHERWEN: They’re really attractive for kids, really interactive; perform lots of natural behaviours which kids see on shows like Meerkat Manor. The sentry duty, the kids are excited to see that in person. It’s a very excitable environment, lots of loud noises and screaming and running up and down the enclosure. We found there was absolutely no difference in any meerkat at either site. It’s a strong initiation they’re not influenced by visitors at all and go about their day to day life with visitors around them. There’s no data that’s we’ve collected that they avoid or are influenced at all by visitors.

ALISTAIR WALSH: A quick visit to the meerkat enclosure seems to reinforce this. Group after group of school children come by, each rowdier than the last and the meerkats couldn’t seem to care less. Kelly Rainbow has worked with the meerkats for years.

KELLY KAINBOW: Mostly they just ignore people. You can see these people now they’re just totally ignoring them. Unless you’re wearing a uniform and you have a bucket with food. They have people doing it all day. They get used to it.

ALISTAIR WALSH: Sally says it’s a different story for the monkeys though. Unlike their orang-utan cousins it seems monkeys would rather not see as many humans.

SALLY SHERWEN: The monkeys are really interesting. They are highly social primates that communicate with each other with facial expressions which are very similar to human facial expressions. So we wanted to block off the visual contact with humans. It looks like the monkeys are adjusting their behaviour when they can’t see the visitors in terms of their aggression levels and their activity in the group. When we block off the visual contact they spend more time interacting with the group and less time at the visitor window interacting with the visitors.

ALISTAIR WALSH: All this means Melbourne Zoo can start modifying enclosures to keep the animals happier. In the monkeys case this might mean installing a one-way viewing screen. In the kangaroos, which Sally also studied, it might mean limiting the number of visitors in the free range enclosure at one time. And for the meerkats? Well Sally says they be used in more interactive experiences for zoo visitors. But they can’t take it too far.

KELLY RAINBOW: They can bite. A lot of them can bite. You can’t trust people not to try and touch them and they will get bitten. I wouldn’t say they’re animals that I would trust people in with, more so than them in with people.

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