Research at Hartpury University has highlighted the complex relationship that can exist between zookeepers and animals in their care.
The collaborative study, entitled ‘You can’t really hug a tiger: Zookeepers and their bonds with animals’ was carried out by Professor Vicky Melfi from Hartpury University; Professor Lynda Birke, at the University of Chester; Professor Geoff Hosey, at the University of Bolton.
The paper, which has been published in Anthrozoos, a multi-disciplinary journal of the interactions of people and animals, explored how zookeepers reflected on their experiences with different species they care for and manage, at the same time as ensuring they work professionally to ensure high standards of care which might mean they need to maintain necessary physical and emotional distance from them.
Professor in Human-Animal Interactions, Vicky Melfi, said: “We are familiar with the idea that we would have a positive bond with our pets, but what this study identifies is that there is growing evidence that zookeepers recognise they have bonds with the animals they care for at work too, which includes many different animals including birds and reptiles.
“Keepers are aware of the potential dilemmas posed by such bonds, such as loss of a fear of humans by those animals intended to be released into the wild.
“The findings presented in our paper provide us with insights which can inform our judgments about the role of human-animal bond development in the management of zoo-housed animals.”
Fourteen zookeepers from establishments of different sizes in the UK and New Zealand volunteered to participate in the research.
Among the themes identified by the study were that keepers entered the job for the “love of animals”.
However, they drew boundaries between themselves and the ‘wild’ animals in their care to reduce interference with the animals’ normal behavioural repertoire and to maintain illusions of ‘nature’ in the zoo environment.
The study found that these boundaries could be difficult to maintain during the course of the keeper-animal relationship, for various reasons, for example if a keeper needed to hand-raise young animals, because the mother had failed to care for her offspring.
Prof Melfi, the author of various publications including the book Zoo Animals: Their behaviour, management and welfare, said: “Our study highlighted that zookeepers are expected to distance themselves from the wild animals they’re working with.
“Yet many zookeepers interact more with the animals in their care on a daily basis, than many people may do with their pets.
“Zookeepers are expected to give the animals as much love and compassion as they’d give to their pets, but these ‘wild’ animals are not pets so they need to maintain emotional and physical distance.
“When we asked the zookeepers how they managed to achieve that, what came through consistently was that zookeepers always put the welfare and long-term interest of the animals first.
“Even if a zookeeper had hand-reared a tiger cub for three months and become ‘close’ to that animal, for instance, they will do whatever’s necessary to maximise conservation outcomes, even if that means the animal is moved to another zoo.
“There’s a huge level of humanity displayed by those interviewed in this study, and people who look after animals more widely, by doing the right thing for animal welfare and conservation.
“Hopefully, this report will help give due credit to the professionalism and the level of understanding and care of those working within the zoo industry.”
The expertise and experience of lecturers at Hartpury spans all areas of animal and agricultural sciences, and all staff are actively involved in research and knowledge exchange, either as researchers or practitioners.
Research is fully integrated within teaching, with staff research active in the areas in which they teach and many dissertations embedded in larger scale research projects.
All research activity either directly or indirectly informs not only current industry practice but also the curriculum.
Hartpury University, home to more than 1,800 students, offers undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Sport, Equine, Animal, Agriculture and Veterinary Nursing, as well as postgraduate research and PhD qualifications.
Picture: Professor Vicky Melfi at Hartpury University