Acaralp-Rehnberg, L. K., Coleman, G. J., Magrath, M. J. L. et al. 2020. The effect of behind-the-scenes encounters and interactive presentations on the welfare of captive servals (Leptailurus serval). Animals 10(4), 743.
The serval (Leptailurus serval) is a small African felid that is well represented in zoos and often serves as an animal ambassador in encounter programs with zoo visitors. The impact on serval welfare in relation to such programs has not been investigated to date, and the aim of this study was to assess short-term welfare effects of varying levels of visitor interaction in two captive servals. Weekly blocks of four different treatments were imposed three times on each animal over 12 weeks, and the treatments involved (1) Presentations (serval undertaking a routine training session in a designated presentation space, typically attracting high visitor numbers), (2) Behind-the-scenes (BTS, a close encounter allowing a small group of visitors to interact closely with the cat in its enclosure), (3) Presentations and BTS combined, and (4) No visitor interaction. Serval activity budgets as well as behavioural diversity were created from behaviours observed from Close Circuit Television (CCTV) footage during four daily recording sessions per animal over three consecutive days per treatment, using instantaneous scan sampling every 60 s. Individual faecal samples were collected daily to monitor changes in faecal glucocorticoid metabolite (FGM) concentration. Results indicate that the mean number of scans with stereotypic pacing was significantly reduced (p = 0.01) during Treatments 1 and 3, when cats participated in presentations only, or the two activities combined. Conversely, a significant reduction in behavioural diversity (p < 0.001) was observed when cats participated in Treatment 3, i.e., cats expressed fewer behaviours when interaction with visitors was more frequent. FGM concentrations did not vary significantly with treatment (p > 0.05). Given the reduction in stereotypic pacing, these findings suggest that involvement in an encounter program appears to exert an overall positive short-term welfare effect on the individual servals in this study. Although a reduction in behavioural diversity was not considered a negative welfare effect in the short term, potential long-term negative welfare effects resulting from a more frequent encounter program could not be ruled out in the present study.