Ambassador animals are typically exotic species utilized within zoological institutions for up close encounters to connect visitors with wildlife and inspire conservation action. Research has demonstrated that zoo experiences that allow for an up-close encounter lead to an emotional connection to wildlife and inspire people to conservation action. However, one frequent question is how do these types of programs impact the welfare of the animals? Does removing animals from their habitats and bringing them out for people to see them up-close impact their welfare?

The Chicago Zoological Society – Brookfield Zoo recently completed a study examining how number of visitors and ability to contact (touch) the ambassador animal impacted their welfare. The species that were studied included a porcupine, binturong, and tamandua. Animals were brought out to either a single visitor or a group of five visitors. Some of the individuals or groups were allowed to contact (touch) the ambassador animal while others were not allowed to contact (touch) the animal. Fecal samples were collected daily from each of the animals to be able to examine markers of adrenal activity (stress hormones) including both glucocorticoids and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA).

Results suggest that participating as an ambassador animal had no negative impact on the animal’s welfare based on the markers of adrenal activity. Hormone levels were similar on both program and non-program days. On days when animals participated in programs the number of visitors and ability to contact (touch) the animal also did not significantly impact markers of adrenal activity. The results likely reflect the robust training program that our dedicated animal care staff have implemented with the ambassador animals. The animals are trained using positive reinforcement training where the animals are rewarded for their behavior and given a choice of whether or not to participate in the programs. Overall, the results suggest that these types of programs are not negatively impacting our ambassador animals which allows for continued use to meet our mission of inspiring conservation leadership.
Dr. Lance Miller
Vice President, Conservation Science and Animal Welfare Research
Published June 12, 2023