Williams, E., Carter, A., Hall, C. et al. 2019. Exploring the relationship between personality and social interactions in zoo-housed elephants: Incorporation of keeper expertise. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 221, 104876.
Individual animal personalities affect experiences of zoo environments, and thus potentially welfare. Incorporating keeper knowledge of animal personality in a reliable way has great value in optimising welfare in zoo-housed animals. Assessment of animal personality has been used to predict group compatibility and social relationships in a number of species including rhinoceros, gorilla and chimpanzees, and there is potential to do the same with zoo elephants. This study identified elephant personalities using keeper ratings, and investigated the relationship between personality and social interactions in zoo elephants. Behavioural data were collected over a period of 12 months at seven study facilities (January 2016 – February 2017). Subjects were 10 African (1 male: 9 females) and 19 Asian (3 male: 16 female) elephants housed at zoos and safari parks in the UK and Ireland. Each subject was rated using an elephant personality assessment questionnaire, comprising 21 personality adjectives with a visual analogue scale. Personality assessments were completed by 27 keepers. Reliability across keepers was established for nine adjectives and a principal components analysis revealed three personality components: ‘attentiveness’, ‘sociable’ and ‘engaged with the environment’. Correlations were observed between keeper scores of sociability and social interactions (p < 0.05). Elephants considered more sociable by keepers interacted positively with a greater proportion of elephants in the herd than less sociable elephants (p < 0.05). Current Secretary of States Standards of Modern Zoo Practice (SSSMZP) elephant management guidelines include the need for long-term management plans, including elephant behavioural profiles and herd compatibility assessments. The results show that sociability as identified by keepers relates to social interactions, illustrating the importance of inclusion of personality assessment in management plans. Future work should build on these findings; applying keeper ratings of elephant personality to a larger sample size, and exploring its potential as a predictive tool in compatibility assessments. Such a measure would help to increase the chance of successful social group formation contributing to positive zoo elephant welfare.