November 11, 2013

Animal Prints Might Confuse Zoo Animals

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A British zoo caused quite a stir this past September when it banned all animal prints. According to zoo spokespersons, the patterns “confuse” the animals.

The Chessington World of Adventures Resort has incorporated a zero-tolerance policy in their ban against anything animal print-like ranging from the usual leopard prints to giraffe spots to the wild hyena design. Apparently, animals have mistaken people in predator prints for predators and tourists in like prints as their own.

It would be odd for an animal in captivity to mistake a tiny two-legged tourist in giraffe print as a giraffe. Writers across the Internet tried to rationalize why a clearance dress with cheetah stripes could cause so much chaos in these animals.

Prof. Jim Giles, Department of Animal Science, guessed that the interest was based on the animals’ behavior. However, he said it is difficult to make a complete analysis without seeing the behaviors for himself.

Prof. Dan Brown, Department of Animal Science, cautioned against the excitement from the British zoo. “If it is accurate that the zoo took this step,” Brown said, “I still don’t know enough about the intrinsic behavior of each and every animal in their collection to judge how justified this rule is.”

Across the Internet, both veterinarians and interested readers have written similar guesses for the confused behavior. For instance, color is a natural warning signal to animals. Much like a black spider or a red tree frog tells humans to stay far away, most animals have some innate knowledge as to what colors and patterns to avoid.

Sometimes movement can also be an important clue for animals. Big cats often prefer a slow or injured animal than a galloping antelope that is halfway across the plain. If a slow or injured person walks by a big cat exhibit wearing striped black print, it is possible the cats may become excited and hungry for zebra.

Prof. Elizabeth Oltenacu, Department of Animal Science, is more skeptical. The animal print ban at the British zoo coincided with the opening of a new exhibit called Zufari, and the ban has gained a considerable amount of free publicity for the zoo. Oltenacu said that if animals have been fleeing from the sight of humans, it likely has more to do with any threatening gestures coming from those humans, such as excited yells and finger-pointing. Certainly the seven-ton vehicles that began blazing through their homes had more to do with the observed fear than any people in animal print, according to Oltenacu. If someone started riding a motorcycle through Barton Hall, it might incite a similar reaction.

“If this were a real issue with animal prints, it would have been observed and hit the headlines long ago,” Oltenacu wrote.

Numerous zoos in the United States and across the globe have similar up-close-and-personal exhibits with animals without having a ban on animal prints. The giraffes at Utah’s Hogle Zoo don’t seem to care what tourists are wearing as they eat food out of people’s hands. It is unlikely that the prints, at least on their own, confuse the animals. If such dangers for humans or zoo animals existed, animal prints would have been widely banned long ago.

Then again, a viral video from Japan features a little girl in a seal hat who was three inches of glass away from being eaten by a happy polar bear. The bear made three attempts to swim through the glass and chase the little seal. The Chessington World of Adventures Resort has yet to ban adorable seal attire, however. Until such a ban is in order, the lions and tigers will have to figure out what to do with the two-legged zebras and giraffes in safari cars.