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Enhancing Giraffe Wellbeing

6 November 2023

We recently embarked on an extraordinary journey with researchers from the University of Glasgow to craft the world’s first interactive enrichment system for our lovely giraffes. Providing captivating activities for zoo animals is pivotal for their mental and physical well-being and keepers typically achieve this by introducing various forms of enrichment into their habitats daily.

Giraffes, with their peculiar sleep habits, present a particular challenge. Instead of enjoying long hours of rest at night, they take short, frequent naps throughout the day. What’s more, in 2015 it was discovered that giraffes hum to each other while awake at night, though the reason for this behaviour remains a mystery.

Our collaborative team set out to investigate whether giraffes would enjoy triggering these hums themselves, thus potentially enriching their experience. Two prototype systems were designed, one playing sounds when giraffes interacted with a hanging toy and the other triggering audio when they stood next to a sensor.  Both devices featured two types of audio: giraffe hums and white noise. After a brief adjustment period, the researchers enabled the devices to respond to the giraffes’ interactions.

Over two months, the team observed that our giraffes interacted with the proximity system more frequently but interacted for longer with the touch-based device. Surprisingly, the giraffes showed no preference for sound type, and their interactions declined once they became accustomed to the introduced audio.

Lead researcher, Dr. Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas said, ‘“Giraffes are increasingly endangered in the wild, so for wildlife preservation purposes it’s important that we try to make their lives in captivity as rewarding as possible. Previous studies, including my own, have shown that computer systems have real potential to deliver enriching experiences for zoo animals.

“What we set out to do in this first study on interactive systems for giraffes is to try to start to map out how devices might work for them. How could we adapt systems to their preferences, and what might they like to hear when they used the prototypes to trigger sounds?

“As it turned out, it seems the sound of other giraffes humming isn’t as appealing as we might have expected, which gives us an important data point to move forward with. It could also help unravel the mystery of why giraffes in captivity make this humming sound, which is similar to the vocalisations they make to each other but could have another purpose which they don’t necessarily enjoy hearing played back to them.”

Blair Drummond Safari Park’s research coordinator Alasdair Gillies said: “Using interactive systems as a form of enrichment represents an innovative and exciting approach to empowering animals, granting them control and choice over their environment and how they spend their time.  Conventional enrichment methods often rely on food as the primary motivator, which can be restrictive. We take pride in contributing to the ongoing effort to expand the type of experiences we can offer our animals.”

The research paper, titled ‘Hum-ble Beginnings: Exploring Input Modality of Touch and Space for Audio,‘ will be presented at the ACM Interactive Surfaces and Spaces conference on November 8th. This work represents a significant step in understanding and enhancing the well-being of giraffes in captivity, all while contributing to the broader field of animal interactive systems.

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