How It Works
Meerkats happy to see zoo visitors return
When humans flooded the zoo in South Africa after months of lockdown, the African penguins couldn’t have cared less about it. Meanwhile, the bubbly slendertailed meerkats at a zoo in the UK seemed uplifted by their bipedal visitors.
Researchers studied the behaviour of the animals before and after zoos reopened in the UK and South Africa to learn more about how lockdown affected them. “We can’t say what the animals were feeling, but the positive behaviours that we observed – such as positive social interactions with each other and positive human-animal interactions – suggest the return of visitors was a positive and engaging experience for the meerkats,” said Ellen Williams, a lecturer in animal behaviour and welfare at Harper Adams University.
Zookeepers began reporting that animals were suffering without the company of visitors. Animals like meerkats were “missing their human friends” in New Zealand zoos, The Guardian reported in April 2020, and staff at the Singapore Zoo were taking their African penguins for walks in May to help keep them stimulated without visitors.
These anecdotes led Williams and her colleagues to wonder how the animals were faring during lockdown. “Obviously zoos are not usually closed for long periods of time, and so this study offered us a unique opportunity to understand more about how the meerkats and African penguins were behaving when there were no visitors,” Williams said.
Meerkat keepers at Knowsley Safari Park, Twycross Zoo and Plantasia, all in the UK, and penguin keepers at ushaka Sea World in South Africa monitored their animals during fiveminute windows and recorded behaviours for the researchers to study. They noted the behaviours the animals were performing, such as foraging for food, and where the animals were positioned in the enclosure.
The meerkats appeared to react well to visitors returning by interacting positively with each other more often, with behaviours such as playing and grooming. They were, however, also more alert once visitors returned, and they spent longer in the parts of their enclosure farthest from visitor viewing areas compared with during lockdown.
The penguins behaved the same regardless of whether there were visitors at their zoo or not, suggesting they didn’t care much either way. The research was designed as a pilot study, and the authors advocate for more research over a longer period to better understand the effect that zoo visitors have on the animals.