Interspecies Relationships and Their Influence on Animal Handling: a Case Study in the Tallinn Zoological Gardens

Abstract

This paper addresses the biosemiotic dimensions of human relationship with captive animals and aims to uncover how these factors influence handling practices and human-animal interactions within zoological gardens. Zoological gardens are quintessential hybrid environments, and as such, they are places of interspecies interactions and mutual influences. These interactions are profoundly shaped by human attitudes towards animals. The roots of these attitudes can be found at the cultural and institutional levels (how particular animal species are culturally perceived and managed in zoos) as well as at the biosemiotic level (similarities between Umwelten). Previous studies have suggested that keepers’ attitudes towards animals have direct influences on their handling style and, consequently, have an impact on animals’ perception of keepers and other humans. This suggests that the type of relationship between keepers and animals can translate into handling styles that may affect animals’ perceptions of humans and worsen or improve their welfare. In this paper, we present a case study involving chimpanzees’ keepers at the Tallinn Zoological Gardens (Estonia). A series of interviews were conducted, which aimed to uncover the way keepers understand their relationships with captive animals and how this influences handling. This work offers a comparative approach by bringing forward the experiences of keepers who work with various animal species belonging to different taxa (Cebuella pygmae, Pan troglodytes) and class (Mammalia and Reptilia, i.e. Crocodylus porosus). Such an approach aims to highlight the biosemiotic factors behind the emergence of different types of keeper-animal relationships. We expect to uncover whether extremely different Umwelten may shape human-animal bonds. By highlighting the agency of animals in daily activities and work routine, we also aim to initiate a discussion on the way animals influence handling practices within zoological gardens. Our objective is to understand how individual animals influence handling practices within zoological gardens.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The zoo was founded on the 25th August 1939 and was officially recognised as a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) in 1989, earlier than any other zoo in the Soviet Union.

  2. 2.

    Old man, in Estonian. The name was given to the crocodile when he was still a hatchling. Keepers are not sure where he got his name, however K1 deemed it “offensive”.

  3. 3.

    The expression translates into English as “zero degree” and could mean the “rock bottom” or the “starting point” of a hybrid community. [From the translator’s note (Lestel 2014: 72)]

  4. 4.

    This idea is best summarised by referring to K3’s own words: “[…] marmosets live in a group; they think as a troop”.

  5. 5.

    Pino was ill for some time and needed medical attention, which meant that keepers had to administer eye drops multiple times per day. This was easily achieved because he did not offer resistance but collaborated with keepers.

  6. 6.

    K1 and K3 both confused pygmy marmosets with tamarins when talking about their work routine. It is unclear whether they perceive the two species as having little intraspecific differences. Estonian and Russian have separate words for both species.

  7. 7.

    Verbatim transcription of K3’s words. The keeper explained that they liken “sudden bursts of anger” that characterise chimpanzees’ behaviour to unpredictable people. Rather than dehumanising people with disabilities, K3 intended to humanise chimpanzees.

  8. 8.

    These features must not be understood as exclusive factors influencing human interest, as the picture presented here is rather a simplified one. Cultural variations also have a strong influence on biologically dictated preferences, as acknowledged in our introduction.

  9. 9.

    Marmosets can hear frequencies extending to 30 kHz, which goes beyond the average human hearing range (20 Hz–20 kHz).

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Nelly Mäekivi and Masha Kanatova for providing translations for the interview questions in Estonian and Russian and for translating the interview scripts into English. We are also extremely grateful to the Tallinn Zoological Gardens, all the interviewed keepers, and the relevant management for allowing this study.

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Correspondence to Mirko Cerrone.

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Cerrone, M. Interspecies Relationships and Their Influence on Animal Handling: a Case Study in the Tallinn Zoological Gardens. Biosemiotics 13, 115–135 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12304-019-09372-w

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Keywords

  • Hybrid environments
  • Interspecies communication
  • Human-animal relationships
  • Umwelt