An Osprey perched on the hands of a keeper at Healesville Sanctuary.

Guiding Principles for Animal Experiences at Zoos Victoria

Zoos Victoria is a zoo-based conservation organisation that works to fight extinction. A key factor in achieving this is by providing opportunities for people to connect with nature and ultimately be inspired to protect and care for animals.

School programs at Zoos Victoria are designed to facilitate this connection with nature in school groups by providing animal experiences that involve students engaging their senses: listening, observing, smelling and when appropriate touching animals or animal artefacts. This may include: observing a parrot fly or an elephant wash, being a participant at the seal presentation, smelling and recognising the gorilla’s musty scent or listening to Zoo staff interpret an animal’s behaviour or share stories about the animals they work with.

Underpinning these ambitious conservation goals are high standards of animal welfare. Zoos Victoria strives to be an international leader of best practices in the care and wellbeing of animals. ‘Good zoos’ go to every possible length to ensure animals in their care have a life worth living. A large part of this includes creating situations where animals feel pleasure, happiness and contentment as well as mental stimulation.

When interacting with animals at the zoo, as well as in your day to day life in other settings, you may wish to reflect on the following ethical considerations:

  • What is the animal experiencing during the interaction and in the lead up to the interaction?
  • Do they have control over their own participation in the interaction with the human?
  • Does the animal appear relaxed and comfortable during the interaction or fearful and flighty?
  • Is the animal in a familiar, safe and comfortable environment?
  • How is the animal being housed when not involved in interactions?

Frequently asked questions about our animal experiences

Can we touch the animal?

Our animal encounters are designed to awaken multiple senses whilst not always engaging our sense of touch. There are times when a tactile experience may be mutually beneficial to both the animal and visitor and times when this is not the case. A tactile encounter is deemed unsuitable when injury or harm could befall either participant: the animal or visitor. We strongly believe connection with animals can be derived from many experiences: observing a mob of meerkats interacting, smelling the varied aromas of the zoo, or hearing the whooshing sound of a free flying parrot overhead.

Can we hold the animal?

To ensure no harm comes to visitors or the animals in our care, our animals are only ever handled by trained staff. This is because holding an animal so that it is safe and comfortable takes a lot of skill and practice. Our Zoo Educators undergo extensive training from our specialist Keepers in this process. Thus animal holding is left to the experts to safeguard welfare.

Can I touch the animal on the head?

We ask our visitors to consider respectful interactions between people and animals. How do they like to be treated? It is not appropriate for a stranger to touch a person on the face or head nor is it comfortable for an animal to be touched on the face or head by an unfamiliar person. This could lead to unnecessary stress or injury.

Are we going to touch more animals?

The aim of our animal experiences is to develop connections between students and animals. The experience is a carefully planned Zoo educator facilitated experience, it is not about the volume of the animals introduced but the quality time spent discussing and observing the animal, interpreting their behaviours and considering the mental and physical wellbeing of the animal. This is a unique experience that aims to highlight to people that connections with animals can come in many shapes and forms and touching is not always in the best interests of the animals. This education process in itself is valuable for young people to understand and ultimately foster respect for wildlife and their capabilities.

How do you know how the animal is feeling?

Animal Welfare is an evolving field in science. We are continually investigating new ways to understand animal behaviour and their underlying emotions. Animals communicate their feelings to us all the time through behaviours as subtle as tiny ear flicks or eye movements and it is it is up to us to know them well enough to be able to understand what they’re communicating so we can ensure they are comfortable in all their activities and live fulfilling, enjoyable lives. We regularly conduct a range of research projects designed to advance our understanding of specific behaviours or changes in animal physiology. This work allows us to make evidence-based management decisions to safeguard animal welfare.