The Human Touch: New research suggests animals prefer human connections (Including Giant Tortoises?)

Cowboy_Ken

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November 19 2014 -Press Release- University of Florida, Gainesville, --- 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.

Credits

Writer: Gigi Marino, 352-294-3393 (o) 352-727-1282 (c), [email protected]

Sources: Lindsay Mehrkam, 610-392-5938 (c) [email protected]
Nicole Dorey 352-273-2188 (c), [email protected]
 

dmmj

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I certainly know there are some humans, I wouldn't mind touching me. :)
 

Louise C

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I have done a few animal behaviour studies at Uni and just quickly reading this don't know how they managed to distinguish the attraction between the keeper and the rubs/scratches they provided......would have to put in another variable with just keeper presence - no touching. I think it is interesting though! I remember one study we did at the local zoo which showed the animals studied (various types of monkeys) were less active when there were no visitors. They played less with each other and spent more time inactive huddling. Monkeys are social creatures though.....
 
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Maggie Cummings

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Those researchers know nothing about tortoises. ALL tortoises recognize the Food God or Goddess and they all go running over to see what's to eat. It's obvious..
 

Dizisdalife

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Well, my first thought was that they came for the food. Reading the article again, they didn't mention that the keepers feed them. They used head rubs and shell scratches as the enticement for human contact. It is hard for me to believe that they could eliminate the keepers feeding them as an influence on the test results. I have spent lots of time at the San Diego Zoo. When my kids were young (I have three) it was an inexpensive way to entertain them and wear them out. So we went at least twice a month. In all those visits it seemed like every animal identified the "keeper's" presence as feeding time.

"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 zoo keepers had used all of these enrichments at least twice a month for several years."

My sulcata certainly sees me as the Food God. He sometimes likes a head rub or shell scratch, but comes to me for a food treat. If I have none, he moves on (stomps away). He'll come back a few minutes later. Again looking for that hand out. But, that's a sulcata that is used to getting treats from me. I have never kept Galapagos or Aldabra. Aren't they more sociable than sulcata?
 

Iochroma

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I worked in a education area of a zoo where there were Aldabras, and we volunteers were strictly prohibited from feeding or other care activities of a pleasant nature (we shoveled poo); one tortoise really liked to have me scratch behind his head at the top of his neck, and would follow me until he got his scratches. He would sometimes fall asleep with his head on my leg.
My Hermann's would sort of sit still for this kind of scratch, but didn't love it always. He would fall asleep on my foot, but I think that was just for the warmth.
 

wellington

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If the tortoises used were never fed by a human, this would be more of an accurate study. However, with the pics of Gregs, (ALDABRAMANS) Aldabras and his wife/friend, I would bet that at least the Aldabra's like human contact. Now, if she is the one that always feeds them, either just her or her and Greg, then it could go back to them being the food God.
@ALDABRAMAN what do you think. Btw, we really should know your wife/friends name. It would make it much easier when talking about her:)
 

bouaboua

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For some people......Better keep there hand off the tortoises....
 
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