Large crowds and flashing cameras make chimps 'anxious', study finds

Picture: Lisa Ferguson.Picture: Lisa Ferguson.
Picture: Lisa Ferguson.
The findings have prompted fresh debate about the ethics of zoos.

Flashing cameras and noisy groups of children make Edinburgh Zoo’s chimpanzee troupe “anxious”, a new study has found.

Academics spent months studying the chimps and found them displaying classic signs of discomfort.

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Troupe members started yawning when faced with screaming youngsters and scratching as visitors took photographs involving mobile phone or camera flashes.

The chimps also displayed nervousness as crowds began to swell at the tourist attraction, the research by Stirling, Cambridge and York universities found.

Their findings prompted fresh debate about the role of zoos as attractions and conservation.

Conservationist Damian Aspinall, who inherited two English animal parks, said: “Even the most attentive and caring husbandry is not good enough to alleviate the boredom and suffering of the kind demonstrated in this latest study for zoo animals spending their lives in captivity.

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“There is no evidence that zoos provide any educational benefit that help conservation efforts; they are mostly money-making ventures.

“Even if profits do go towards conservation efforts in the wild, we shouldn’t justify keeping animals in captivity all their lives in order to do this. It’s barbaric in the 21st century.

“We should phase out zoos over the next 30 years and concentrate on conservation in the wild. In the meantime, every effort should be made to enhance the conditions of the animals in them.”

The study, published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, followed observations made of 18 chimps over 158 hours between 2014 and 2015 at Edinburgh Zoo’s Budongo Trail exhibit, which attracts about 800,000 visitors every year.

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Researchers watched when the zoo was both quiet and busy and also measured times between feeds as, in the wild, chimps tend to graze.

The study concluded: “There were trends for yawning being more likely when children were screaming and scratching being more likely when flash photography was used. This highlights these visitor behaviours as potentially problematic.”

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, which owns Edinburgh Zoo, said the findings did not mean the chimps were unnerved by humans.

Director of conservation and living collections Charlotte Macdonald said: “We provide our chimpanzees with a highly stimulating environment and an excellent standard of care, including private spaces where they can choose to be away from public view.

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“Some of them have been rescued from laboratories and their behaviour can be different from other chimpanzees due to their challenging upbringing.

“It is very important that visitors behave appropriately around all of our animals, which includes not using flash photography and being quiet near their habitats.”