Zoology expert Dr Vicky Melfi is bringing her unique insight to the team at University Centre Hartpury studying the far-reaching impacts of human behaviour on the animal world.
Dr Melfi, who has worked for almost 30 years within the zoo profession as well as holding a number of academic posts, has been appointed Principal Lecturer in Human-Animal Interaction.
She is the author of various publications including the book Zoo Animals: Their behaviour, management and welfare.
She will play a leading role in developing Hartpury’s BSc (Hons) Human-Animal Interaction degree – the first of its kind in the UK – and its new BSc (Hons) Human-Animal Interaction (Animal Assisted Therapy) and BSc (Hons) Human-Animal Interaction with Psychology degrees.
“A central theme in my research, teaching and professional activities, is a keen interest in human-animal interactions, where an understanding of both are critical to enhance the lives of both parties,” said Dr Melfi.
“I’m delighted that Hartpury is putting forward human-animal interactions as one of their core future developments.
“Having the opportunity to be part of the team moving it forward is very exciting because human-animal interaction is absolutely fundamental to everything we do.
“There isn’t anyone in the world who isn’t affected by animals in some degree, and animals, whether they like it or not, are affected by people, directly or indirectly.
“What we choose to eat, whether we interact with captive animals in zoos and if we do things that pollute the environment, they all impact on our interaction with animals.”
The new degrees at Hartpury will examine the benefits of human-animal interaction, from the use of animals in agriculture and the military, to helping children to read and improving the wellbeing of people with physical illness.
Students at Hartpury have the potential to interact with more than 90 species of animals on site, including meerkats and wallabies, as well as gaining real-life experience on industry placements across the UK and internationally.
Dr Melfi said: “Research is showing how productivity in a work place can increase if you have pets around and that patients can recover from trauma far more quickly if they can spend just five minutes’ touching an animal.
“According to studies, in a busy hospital, five minutes with a therapy dog on site can be equivalent to a 20-minute break, in terms of creating a sense of calm in staff enabling them to de-stress.
“At the same time, when a dog is brought into a workplace, it’s important to ensure that it also benefiting from the interaction and that it is not suffering from the experience.
“We’re commitment to finding out how can we improve the lives of animals and people so that both of them can live together and gain from the interaction.
“Historically a lot of my work has been in conservation and animal welfare, so I’m especially interested in how we can work with zoos to monitor their impact in getting information to their visitors, so that they are more likely to make pro-environmental choices.”
Gaining experience in industry is a core part of the degrees, to ensure students are ready for employment when they graduate.
The degrees will provide graduates with opportunities to be employed in all sectors that provide and monitor human-animal interactions.
“Historically this includes zoos, aquariums, wildlife parks, rescue, conservation and welfare centres,” said Dr Melfi.
“But as our understanding of human-animal interactions grows and the benefits are appreciated more widely, we would expect more industries to take an active role in hiring scientifically qualified experts, to grow our understanding and provision of animals at work, in schools, hospitals, and of course in homes.”
“It’s a growing industry and it’s a new industry,” added Dr Melfi. “Our degrees mean students will be coming out ahead of the curve with experience and skills that will put them in a great place for successful careers.”
Picture: Dr Vicky Melfi observing members of the animal collection in the Walled Garden at Hartpury