When I was a kid, my parents took me and my brother a few times a year to a place called Tampa Horses (which was on Tampa Avenue in LA's San Fernando Valley, not in Florida). We got to ride horses as they walked in circles around a corral - which I assume is only fun to a six year old child - and we got to touch animals in the petting zoo. I think you could buy a bag of food to feed the goats, and you were free to pet or groom them. I loved it as a kid, but in the intervening decades, I've come to revile the petting zoo. For one thing, they smell terrible. For another, it seems like an open invitation for some nasty little kid to harass an animal by chasing it around, pulling on its tail, or teasing it. Domesticated animals, which tend to be the ones found in petting zoos, may tolerate human presence in a way that more exotic species don't, but that doesn't mean that their welfare isn't negatively impacted by living in a petting zoo. Or so I thought. Recent research published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science has challenged my assumption.

Psychologist Alexandra Farrand of Scotland's University of Stirling, together with researchers Geoff Hosey of the University of Bolton and Hannah M. Buchanan-Smith, also from Stirling, decided to take an empirical approach to the question of whether visitors have any identifiable affect on the welfare of petting zoo animals, positive or negative. The problem with most previous studies of petting zoo animals is that the presence or absence of visitors was confounded with other variables like time of day. For example, you might compare the animals' behavior during operating hours, when visitors are present, with several hours after the zoo closes, when visitors are absent. But like all animals, petting zoo critters experience natural variations in their activity cycles throughout the day. By limiting observations of visitor-absent behaviors to the end of the day, you might accidentally introduce a systematic bias into your data.

To address that problem, Farrand limited her observations to the same hours of the day, and simply collected enough data so that there would be a sufficient number of observations both when visitors were present and when visitors were absent.

The study was conducted in the petting zoo at Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park in Stirling, Scotland, which was home to fifteen goats (Capra hircus), sixteen llamas (Lama glama), and six Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs (Sus scrofa). The petting zoo covers an area of roughly 4000 square meters, and is covered mainly with grass, interrupted by several trees. In addition, the enclosure features an "escape area," in which human visitors are not allowed. This gives the animals a space to avoid being touched or groomed, though visitors are still allowed to approach the fence and look in.

The observations were conducted in two parts: the first set of observations focused on assessing the animals' behaviors as a function of the number of visitors present. For the second set of observations, the researchers compared the goats' and pigs' (but not the llamas') responses to being groomed by a visitor to times in which the animals were approached by a visitor but not groomed. The visitors were provisioned with a "solid rubber scrubbing block with long flexible teeth designed to groom domestic animals."

The findings were mixed. The presence of visitors led the pigs to spend less time interacting with eachother, and more time in a stationary sitting position. The goats and llamas, on the other hand, didn't care. Their behavior was not changed by the presence or absence of visitors.

When it came to grooming, neither the goats nor the pigs seemed to mind. The researchers found no statistically significant differences in the behavior of either species when comparing the grooming and non-grooming conditions. There were, however, differences for the visitors themselves, who interacted with the goats far more when they could groom them than they did without a "solid rubber scrubbing block with long flexible teeth" in hand.

That's all interesting, but what does it mean for the welfare of petting zoo animals? It suggests that despite small changes in behavior for the pigs, none of the three species was particularly bothered by living in an enclosure founded upon the idea that humans wants to touch non-human animals. As the researchers put it, "visitors do not necessarily have an extensive impact on petting zoo goat, llama, and pig behavior."

But neither is the presence of visitors particularly beneficial for these domesticates either. The goats and pigs were both unaffected by being groomed, suggesting that visitor grooming did not serve as an enriching activity for them. That's actually a bit surprising, because other studies of zoo and laboratory animals have found that structured physical contact with keepers was associated with behavioral changes that reflected improved welfare, and during a pilot test for this study, two of the researchers observed responses to grooming that reflected sensory enrichment. Why the disconnect? It could be that the visitors simply lacked the appropriate training in proper procedures to reveal the enriching effects of grooming. Farrand notes that adding informational signs explaining proper grooming techniques would likely be ineffective, since most visitors to the petting zoo are young children, but that routine keeper demonstrations could prove valuable and might ultimately shift grooming towards becoming an enriching activity for the animals.

Still, it is worth noting that the grooming by untrained visitors didn't lead to a decrease in petting zoo animal welfare, which surprised not only me but also the researchers. They write that the "low level of harassment or aggression visitors directed towards the study animals is noteworthy and is likely to be a factor in the study animals’ ability to cope with the presence of visitors." Whether the good behavior displayed by the visitors is representative of most zoogoers, or is somehow particularly reflective of Scottish zoogoers is a question that remains unanswered.

Taken together, visitor behavior in the petting zoo just doesn't seem to matter all that much. And if positive interactive experiences with animals can lead visitors towards adopting a better attitude towards animal welfare and wildlife conservation, then petting zoos are probably worth keeping around. Maybe my parents had the right idea all along.

Farrand A., Hosey G. & Buchanan-Smith H.M. (2013). The visitor effect in petting zoo-housed animals: Aversive or enriching?, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, DOI:

Photo: Petting zoo at the St. Louis Zoo via Wikimedia Commons/RKLawton.

For more on animal welfare at the zoo:

Let Them Eat Carcass!

By Understanding Cheetah Social Networks, Researchers Could Improve Big Cats’ Breeding Odds

A Kangaroo Battles Cancer

Bringing Science to the Zoo

Tiger Tradeoffs: Balancing Medical and Psychological Well-Being in Zoos

Chimpanzee Infanticide at the LA Zoo: Common Occurrence or Cause for Alarm?

A Psychologist Goes to the Zoo: An Interview with Terry L. Maple

Polar Bears Say, "Stay Away!"