“Zoos must be compassionate and demonstrate a fundamental commitment to being patient-centered” [BM15]. This means that us, visitors, need to switch our attitude from one of a passive consumer to one of active empathy and compassion [RN16].
⏸ Let’s pause for a moment so that we enter this zoo or sanctuary in an empathic, compassionate state of mind. How can we do that? Close your eyes and take a mental step into this world. Try to be this animal. Imagine yourself in that enclosure for your entire life. Also think about what conditions you would want as an ideal environment for you. Let that sink in… and then observe… Would you be content with what you see?… Doing this little exercise should help getting you in a mental state appropriate for the visit.
Empathy, Compassion and Respect constitute the backbone values of all our etiquettes. Here are now a few concrete and important rules for maximizing both your experience and the quality of life of the animal patients of any facility which host captive wildlife: Quiet down – Disappear visually – Favor your true smell – Stick to the path – Slow down – No climbing – Keep your hands quiet – Keep them on a wild diet – Be them – Keep it clean – Ask & ask again.
Admire quietly, respectfully without exuberance…
Use a Quiet Voice
It’s exciting to see these gorgeous animals, and to see children being excited about them. But visitor noise has been proven to be a welfare issue. Talk instead using a very quiet/soothing voice.
Our voice has raised in intensity in the past decades (as the result of louder human environments), and is detrimental to the health and behavior of animals. This has a distressing impact on the animals in captivity and has proven to be correlated with aggressive behavior, heightened vigilance states, and generally increased discomfort and stress ([MK07],[QS14]).
So just refrain from talking and laughing loudly, or screaming of joy, and certainly do not mimic an animal sound to get a reaction. Instead practice a quiet and meditative ‘wonder’ alone or with your companion or family.
Prefer drab, muted colors so as to not raise their attention and stress.
If you are a birder or more generally a naturalist, you know that already. The best quality observations are when your are quiet and invisible.
In the wild flashy colors attract attention (including bright or reflective jewelry) and then when associated with the sight of a human, greatly increase stress of animals. Apply the same code of conduct with captive animals. Don’t think that by now they are used to ‘it’: stressful associations are very hard to break for us humans, and it’s also true for our friends.
Go au naturel. It will make a difference!
Our olfactory sense is nothing compared to that of the majority of zoo animals. Many have a great sense of smell, and therefore are very sensitive to chemicals compounds found in a lot of our beauty products. Some species show changes in behavior in response to odors that typically accompany many cleaning product or synthetic products (like perfume).
Pocket gophers, for instance, have been shown to actively avoid pine needle scent, and pungent smells (such as citronella) increase vigilance behaviors in mice. Other pungent odors such as cedar or pine is associated with adverse impacts on the rodent liver and immune system. Taken together, all these studies suggest that an understanding of the impact that odor has on animals in captivity is essential for creation of captive environments conducive to animal well-being and reproduction [MK07]. So this means that our best bet for avoiding triggering smell stress and harm when we go to a zoo is to go fully natural!
Walk the human habitat path…
It takes a lot of work to cater an exhibit and to maintain it. The path, the plants beds and the lawn you may see did not grow on its own. Besides it is possible that the plants you see have been grown to provide for the animals specifically. Additionally, stepping off path move the dirt and dust around, and if that comes into the habitats of the animals, they can’t get away from it. It’s not good for them. Another good reason is simply safety.
Stay back. Those fences are here for keeping everybody and the animals safe.
Remember Harambe? If you don’t know about his tragic story, here is a quick summary: A three-year-old boy climbed into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden and was grabbed and dragged by Harambe, a 17-year-old Western lowland gorilla. Fearing for the boy’s life, the zoo made the decision to shoot and kill Harambe. No need to say more, right?…
Some people feel they need to throw things, such as toys, rocks – all kinds of items really. This is harmful to animals and dangerous to visitors and observers. Some animals don’t even know the difference between toys and food and may get sick from eating something they shouldn’t. And yes, true, a few animals move slowly or lay still when hunting, and some visitors who want to see them be more active, try to incite an action by throwing stuff. But by doing so you could hit and seriously hurt them. So please refrain from throwing anything into the homes of the animals, as well as remind your human companions that this could be dangerous.
Keep your food to yourselves. People food is bad for wildlife.
Wild and Zoo animals do not eat people food. It’s not good for them at all –as most of our food (organic food included) generally contain chemical compounds or traces that are not natural for them. And zoos generally prescribe a strict diet reviewed by vets and animal nutritionists. Yes even your piece of fruit, nuts and such might not be suited to their diet. It can even be dangerous. Think about the fact that chocolate is a treat for us but poisonous for dogs.
Follow your favorite animals’ rules. Search and read about the culture and etiquette before visiting them.
We humans are very sensitive to our own culture and traditions. We have a tendency to be or feel hurt when one does not respect our culture. It then takes a conscious effort to reason, then accept and forgive that a visitor might have acted unknowingly.
Well… the same applies for the animals in captivity. Each and any one of them come from cultured (animal) societies with their own set of rules and therefore violations. Let’s take the example of the gorilla etiquette. Looking straight into the eyes of a silverback (or any other member of the group) is a direct aggression. When it comes to the silverback, it simply means that his authority is challenged. And it most certainly is seen as a challenge when people try to do the chest beating – even when it comes from a little girl (as in that instance when a gorilla nearly broke the glass of his enclosure). It does not matter that they may have had to learn that it’s not necessarily an aggression when it comes from human visitors. Be sure that it still is ingrained in them that straight looking is usually an aggression. Remember also that they have been removed directly, or generationally out of their natural habitat to have humans parading past looking at them – would you be as accepting? So how about showing a little respect? We are in their “given home” after all. Besides you might have the wonderful surprise to see a mother coming closer to you, to check who is this human squatting (so as to not be at a higher level than them) and looking sideways in a humble posture at the edge of their enclosure… Priceless!
In the countryside, litter doesn’t have a friend. It doesn’t have anybody who’s saying, ‘Wait a minute, this is really starting to get out of control.’– Bill Bryson
Food and more generally litter has a tremendous negative impact on wild animals. Any rubbish you leave behind may be end up flying away or getting kicked in an enclosure and then being mistakenly eaten by or plainly harming animals.
Engage: Ask, listen, help and challenge when necessary…
The EwA Wildness Etiquette mentions the importance of engaging with the experts. The same applies here and sums up again to: Listen, help and challenge.
Listen to the staff.
Help by adopting this zoogoer etiquette and by asking questions. Discuss with the staff and volunteers about the living conditions of the animals you see, ask them about their natural history, their habits in their natural habitat, their migratory range, their foraging habits…
And challenge when necessary. If you observe potential welfare issues, such as stereotypical behavior, unsuited enclosures then ask for explanations and what is being done to better the conditions. Ask how you can help.It is mandatory for any accredited zoo to provide a means for visitors to ask and gain satisfactory answers [KR15]. If it ever happens that your questions get dismissed or ignored then report/raise this as a potential issue to reputable organizations who can help you. These organizations will follow up with the zoo if there are causes for concern and will work with them to get to better standards in support of animal welfare. Ultimately it’s up to us as visitors to to help maintain a good environment for Zoo animals by following the right etiquette, and to use our voice to raise challenges when we see them not followed or when we see something wrong with the standards of living.
If additionally you want to contribute actively to improving living standards of the average zoo or sanctuary, then please take a moment to get familiar with our Zoo Evaluation Guide. By doing so, you will have tools to better understand what you’re seeing, and potentially you will help those facilities who need your feedback so as to spread stronger welfare standards locally and globally.
[KR15] A Universal Animal Welfare Framework for Zoos — Kagan, R. & al. in Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science (2015) — Provides a framework for helping improving welfare of captive animals, with the core principle of ensuring that animals in zoos thrive, not just survive, physically, psychologically and socially. It is important to note that it raises implicitly the issue that zoos are not patient-centered yet although they should be, despite what zoo enthusiasts want to believe. The 1st author is Ron Kagan, the very reputable head of the Detroit Zoological Society. Take a moment to also listen to his very good 2015 TED talk on the topic (Animal Welfare and the Future of Zoos ). It’s well worth 20 minutes of our time.
[BM15] Detroit Zoo's Ron Kagan Talks About "Patient-Centered" Zoos — Bekoff, M. (2015).
[RN16] Putting Animal Empathy on Display — Rose, N.A. Center for Humans and Nature (2016).
[DJ07] Visitors’ Effects on the Welfare of Animals in the Zoo: A Review — Davey, G. in Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 10:2, 169-183, (2007).
[MK07] Sources of Stress in Captivity — Morgan, K. & Tromborg, C. in Applied Animal Behavior Science 102 262-302, (2007).
[QS14] Zoo Visitor Effect on Mammal Behaviour: Does Noise Matter? — Quadros, S. & al. (2014).
Note that this Etiquette is and will remain a work in progress. If there is anything else you would like to see added, please let us know and we’ll do our best to include it. Let’s be Earthwise Aware. Let’s enjoy and protect wildlife responsibly! Thanks for your support!