Heintz, M. R.; Fuller, G., Allard, S. 2019. Exploratory investigation of infrared thermography for measuring gorilla emotional responses to interactions with familiar humans. Animals 9(9), 604.
Interactions between zoo professionals and animals occur regularly and are believed to be enriching for animals. Little empirical information exists on how animals perceive these interactions, and particularly how the interactions affect the emotional states of animals. Infrared thermography (IRT) has shown some promise in the assessment of emotions in a variety of species, but further research is needed to determine if this method is useful in a zoo setting. We conducted a pilot study to determine if IRT is a valid measure of the emotional responses to routine interactions (positive reinforcement training and cognitive tasks, compared to a control condition) with familiar humans on three western lowland gorillas at the Detroit Zoo. We measured nasal temperatures associated with emotional change using IRT. To examine the validity of the IRT data, we collected saliva samples for hormone analysis before and after each condition, in addition to behavioral data during the interactions and control condition. Decreases in nasal temperatures for two gorillas and an increase in the third indicate that arousal changed consistently within individuals following the interactions but not the control condition. Pre-post cortisol levels and oxytocin concentrations decreased for all conditions, but the decreases seen did not differ among the conditions. The gorillas were highly engaged in the interactions, and two produced more grumble vocalizations during the human-animal interactions (HAIs) compared to the control condition. Additionally, the gorillas performed self-directed behaviors more often during the control condition, also suggesting HAIs were not a negative experience. In summary, we were able to measure changes in arousal using IRT, but we were unable to determine the emotional valence of these changes based on the additional indicators employed. Additionally, the inconsistency across these measures precluded firm conclusions about either the validity of IRT for measuring emotion in this context or how the interactions impacted these gorillas. These findings highlight the challenges of using IRT to measure emotional states in non-human animals, and we discuss further steps necessary to apply this method in future studies.