Getting in touch with a tiger
In a captive setting, it’s hugely important to take into account the human-tiger relationship and/or interactions. This must consider the interactions between the tiger and visitors, as well as the direct or closer interactions and relationships the tiger will have with their keepers, trainers and vets. Any of these interactions can be one of a range of different interaction types. Interactions can involve direct hands-on from both visitors and keepers, or also be a strictly hands-off or protected contact interaction. No matter which of these setups is used within the captive setting, the importance of a positive human-animal interaction cannot be understated as these can influence the tigers’ health and welfare .
Keepers, trainers and vets
Repeat interactions between the same animal and human can cause a relationship to develop . Studies have shown that positive interactions with keepers and caretakers can mean tigers are more relaxed in their environment. Taking these further, positive keeper-tiger interactions can even mean that the tigers are more positive towards humans in general. There are three types of handling performed between keepers and tigers in captivity: hands-on/physical contact; protected contact, and; hands-off where keepers interact with the big cat as little as possible .
Discussions with keepers of tigers and other big cats have shed light on the benefit the tigers may have from increased interaction with keepers. The benefits include improved physical health as keepers are able to monitor the tiger more effectively, and psychological well-being acan also be improved through a stronger bond or relationship with their keeper. This in turn leads to more control and choice within their own environment decreasing stress. Other benefits are increased cognitive and social stimulation, which can reduce negative behaviours and promote the performance of more natural behaviours .
Hands-on: While this can be good for creating a bond, studies indicate that hands-on interaction can affect big cats negatively, particularly with regard to their natural behaviour. It is also considered to remove choice and control from the tiger . Hands-on also sends the wrong message to the general public, indicating it is safe/easy to interact with big cats, causing visitors to want to mimic behaviour either at the facility or at home if private tiger ownership is possible.
Protected contact: In general, keepers in various studies preferred protected contact, deeming this to be the most effective option in caring for big cats. This type of interaction allows a bond to form but also ensures safety measures are in place [2,3]. It is still easy to monitor health, and the tiger can still be trained to perform certain tasks that make health care easier. As a side point, this type of contact sends more accurate messages to the public regarding the safety and care of captive tigers and other big cats .
Hands off: This is considered to be the least beneficial option as it can be limiting in terms of creating a bond and can cause negative behaviours to occur. Additionally, there is the problem that it can lead to reduced medical care. This is because the tiger will be in a captive situation where people, be they visitors or keepers, will always be present. This close proximity of humans can cause elevated stress levels, and defensive or aggressive behaviours to manifest . Arguably, tigers or other big cats like these show a more accurate picture of what a tiger is like to visitors, but as these behaviours are generally elicited by the presence of humans, an interaction that wild tigers do not usually have, this is likely a welfare issue, not a gain.
What’s even more interesting to note, is that the personality of the keeper can also affect the interactions between tigers and keepers . Tigers will respond differently to different keepers and will respond more positively if they spend time engaging in activities alongside keepers . Good human-animal bonds can also affect the way the animal responds to other, unfamiliar humans, usually in a positive way .
Many facilities around the world allow visitors to have direct contact with tigers through photo opportunities. These tigers are placed into public situations on a regular, often daily, basis. As tigers are considered solitary animals, it is possible regular interaction can cause stress to tigers . This possible increase in stress is raised in visitor effect research [6,7]. The effects of visitor presence fall under three categories; enriching, neutral or stressful. As such, these interactions will affect the tiger’s welfare in different ways .
Protected contact with visitors has also been studied with tigers appearing to pace more in these types of interactions with unfamiliar humans. However, it is possible that this increase in pacing was from the provision of food rather than due to stress . While this type of interaction can influence the tiger behaviour, it does not appear to be negative, though once the food was provided, the tiger was seen to move away from the presence of humans. It is also possible that the good relationship with the keeper makes such protected contact interactions with unfamiliar humans a more positive one with the keeper mediating the interactions .
When it comes to tigers and other felids, it does appear that they are less affected than other species by the presence of visitors; they show minimal change in behaviour [8,9]. Studies have shown that tigers, in the presence of large crowds, show a greater amount of activity and possible stereotypic behaviours , while other studies show the opposite . It’s also possible that tiger personality, age and sex also influences their response to large numbers of visitors with another study showing this variation between a group of tigers .
Overall though, it can be hypothesised that tigers have neutral or possibly negative human-animal relationships with the general public. However, there are not many studies directly looking at the effect visitors have directly on tigers or other zoo animals . This is one of the reasons For Tigers keeps monitoring and studying human-tiger interactions as part of our annual welfare assessments in order to gain valuable information.
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