November 19, 2014 — The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

New research suggests animals prefer human connections

What do animals really want? A new study from the University of Florida suggests it might be human contact, at least in the case of some Galapagos tortoises.

Lindsay Mehrkam, a UF doctoral student in psychology, and psychology professor Nicole Dorey have published a paper in the journal Zoo Biology that examines different types of enrichment preferences in zoo-housed animals.

The findings are particularly important for those who work with animals in captivity every day – zookeepers, trainers and students – and strive to provide the best experience for them.

“Zoos are at the heart of our work, and the welfare of zoo animals is second nature,” Mehrkam said. The team said non-mammalian species have been understudied, and they set out to better understand what makes tortoises happy.

In the experiment, three tortoises at the Santa Fe Teaching Zoo in Gainesville named Larry, Moe and Curly, were given four choices of keeper interaction: playing with a large rubber ball or under a water sprinkler, or having their shells scrubbed or necks rubbed. The zookeepers had used all of these enrichments at least twice a month for several years.

“We wanted to determine if the keeper interactions are just as enriching for the animals as they are for the keepers,” Mehrkam said. “What effect does it have on the animals? Do the animals find it enriching or rewarding?”

The inanimate object and the human were placed on opposite sides of the enclosure. The tortoises were released from the barn and had five minutes to make a choice. Time and time again, they beelined – as much as a lumbering tortoise can beeline – for the human.

“Not only did they prefer keeper interaction overall compared to the traditional forms of enrichment,” Mehrkam said, “but the individual tortoises had preferences for the kind of interaction they wanted. Larry and Curly like having their necks rubbed. Moe liked the shell scrubbing.”

In a follow-up study, Mehrkam and Dorey surveyed zookeepers to see if they could predict which enrichments the animals they work with on a daily basis prefer. They couldn’t.

“The long-term staff who’ve been there for a very long time were the worst at guessing this but were very good at knowing what the animals didn’t like,” Dorey said. “We want to feel like we know our animals, our dog, the animals who live with us and we care for, but in reality [we] don’t. We anthropomorphize how they’re feeling. We really don’t understand their perspective, and that’s what our research shows.”

Both Dorey and Mehrkam use behavior analysis as the foundation of their research. This methodology, used primarily in human study, focuses specifically on behaviors and what factors or situations influence them rather than looking at root causes. The team also is studying aggression in dogs around guarding behaviors in a paper to be submitted for publication soon.