Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago says it has ended a program where visitors were allowed to touch or interact with wildlife, including reptiles and small mammals, following research that shows such encounters can be stressful to the animals.
The Humane Society of the United States has long opposed the use of captive wild animals in ambassador programs at zoos around the country, and we applaud this decision. A two-year study by the zoo, which is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, concluded that allowing visitors to touch an animal did not result in greater visitor engagement, and that interaction with zoo staff members, rather than animal encounters, provided the most enjoyable learning experience to the public.
Existing research as well as media reports show why ambassador programs are ill-suited to modern zoos. The animals are placed under immense stress when they are removed from their enclosures for interactions with the public or are taken off-site for presentations in venues, including classrooms, auditoriums, libraries and television studios. In some cases, such animals are permanently housed in quarantine settings because their off-site use exposes them to pathogens that may be transmitted to other animals at the zoo; quarantine settings are often sub-standard to the primary enclosure animals would be housed in if they were not traveling.
Close encounters with wild animals also raise concerns about public health and safety. Removing animals from enclosures creates an opportunity for the animal to escape, posing a threat to both the animals and the public. Public contact, even when animals remain in their enclosures, presents a risk of injury and disease transmission to both the animals and the people interacting with them.
Earlier this year, a two-year-old girl was hospitalized after she fell into a rhino enclosure at the Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Florida and two rhinos struck the girl with their snouts. Media reports said the incident happened during a hands-on exhibit, known as a Rhino Encounter, where guests are allowed to brush the rhinos and sometimes touch them by reaching between thick steel bars. The toddler suffered injuries to her liver, her kidney, her back and her head.
Using wild animals for close encounters with the public can also have the unintended consequence of inspiring members of the public to obtain exotic and wild animals as pets. One study found that people viewing an image of a chimpanzee standing next to a human were 30.3 percent more likely to agree that a chimpanzee was appealing as a pet than those viewing an image of a chimpanzee standing alone. Studies also confirm that seeing humans interact with endangered animals has a negative impact on public conservation attitudes because it leads people to falsely believe that these animals are not threatened or endangered in the wild.
No one needs to pet a snake or a rhino. Wild animals are beautiful and precious, but they are also unpredictable and therefore unsafe when it comes to encounters with humans and especially children. The Detroit Zoo, a longtime pioneer in ensuring the welfare of its animals, has never had an ambassador program and this hasn’t stopped people from coming. With this latest announcement and research from Lincoln Park Zoo, we encourage more zoos across the nation to rethink their ambassador programs and end direct public contact with animals. The documented harm and risks to both humans and animals greatly outweighs the lure of interacting with a wild animal.