The effect of visitors on the behavior of zoo-housed western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla)

Rebecca Lewis, Yu Mei Chang, Amanda Ferguson, Tracey Lee, Lisa Clifforde, Siobhan Abeyesinghe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Primates, especially apes, are popular with the public, often attracting large crowds. These crowds could cause behavioral change in captive primates, whether positive, neutral, or negative. We examined the impact of visitors on the behavior of six western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), observing the troop over 6 weeks during high season (4.5 hr/day, 35 days, May-July 2016). We used focal scan sampling to determine activity budget and enclosure usage, and focal continuous sampling to identify bouts of anxiety-related behavior (visitor-directed vigilance, self-scratching, and aggression). Both daily zoo-entry numbers (VGATE ) and instantaneous crowds at the exhibit (VDENSITY ) were measured. Overall, VGATE had little effect across behaviors. However, consistent with the more acute time frame of measurement, VDENSITY was a better predictor of behavior; at high crowd volumes, we observed significant group-level changes in activity budget (increased inactivity, increased locomotion, and decreased environment-related behaviors), increase in some anxiety-related behaviors, and decreased enclosure usage. Although contributing similar effects, it could not be determined if crowd numbers, composition, or noise most affected the troop, nor any chronic effects of exposure to large crowds. Nevertheless, our findings suggest that measures to minimize the impacts of large crowds at the exhibit would be beneficial. Furthermore, we highlight potential discrepancies between common methods for measuring visitor numbers: VGATE is less sensitive to detecting visitor effects on behavioral indices than VDENSITY . Future studies should appropriately match the biological time frame of welfare indicators and visitor measures used to ensure the reliability of findings.
Original languageEnglish
JournalZoo Biology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 19 Aug 2020
Externally publishedYes


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