Reducing the impact of zoo visitors on little penguins


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A change to a Melbourne Zoo enclosure aims to minimise the impacts of visitors on little penguins without spoiling the zoo experience.

The outcome

Zoos Victoria has added clear glass barriers to the walls surrounding the little penguin enclosure at Melbourne Zoo. The barriers will prevent zoo visitors from looming over the little penguins (Eudyptula minor), leaning into the enclosure, and touching the water in the pool. Research from the University of Melbourne showed that these behaviours can scare the animals.

The need

Studies have shown that human contact can harm wild penguin populations. It can limit penguin breeding, cause them to avoid nesting areas, and lead to underweight fledgings. But little is known about the effects of visitors on penguins in zoos. One study showed that the presence of zoo visitors led to little penguins avoiding the viewing areas of their enclosures. It also led to penguins being more likely to attack one another and to remain vigilant – standing upright and scanning their environment. However, no studies had investigated what aspects of visitor contact cause these changes to penguin behaviours. This knowledge could help zoos design enclosures that allow visitor viewing while minimising negative effects on the animals.

Developing the solution

Interactions between zoo visitors and little penguins were studied by Samantha Chiew as part of her PhD research.

Little penguins – also known as fairy penguins and blue penguins – are the smallest penguin species, reaching an average height of 33 cm. They are endemic to Australia and New Zealand, and are found in zoos in Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Japan. Like all penguin species, they have excellent vision to catch prey underwater – and to avoid terrestrial, aerial and aquatic predators. This excellent vision means that, unlike some zoo species, little penguins may be more sensitive to the presence of visitors.

At Melbourne Zoo, little penguins are housed in an outdoor enclosure. It contains a pool that is surrounded on three sides by a visitor viewing area. Dr Chiew found that using a physical barrier to keep visitors 2 metres from the pool edge reduced the frequency and intensity of visitor behaviours that could threaten the penguins. These behaviours include banging on the enclosure, looming over the pool, touching the water, and moving suddenly.

Keeping visitors behind the barrier also reduced the little penguins’ fear responses. Fewer penguins displayed fearful behaviours – such as huddling, remaining vigilant, and avoiding the visitor viewing area. And more penguins swam, displayed comfort behaviours such as preening in the water, and came within 1 metre of the visitor viewing area. This meant that penguins and visitors were closer to each other, even though the visitors were kept 2 metres from the pool’s edge.

In separate experiments, Dr Chiew used signs asking visitors to be quiet, move slowly and avoid interacting with penguins. They had no effect on visitor behaviour.

Responses to a visitor questionnaire showed that barriers and signage did not cause visitors to have more negative attitudes towards little penguins or their experience at the exhibit. The more visible, active and close the penguins were to the visitor viewing area, the more positive visitor attitudes and experience were.

Based on these findings, Melbourne Zoo added barriers to the low wall around the little penguin enclosure. The barriers are 1.8 metres high and are made from clear toughened safety glass that is 12 millimetres thick. They allow visitors to see the penguins but not to loom over them or to touch them or the water in the pool.

A clear fence around a penguin enclosure

Dr Chiew’s PhD project was supervised by Professor Paul Hemsworth and Professor Grahame Coleman at the Animal Welfare Science Centre, Dr Sally Sherwen at Zoos Victoria, and Dr Vicky Melfi at Hartpury University, UK. The Animal Welfare Science Centre is a research collaboration between the University of Melbourne, Ohio State University and the US Department of Agriculture.


Melbourne Zoo, part of Zoos Victoria


Australian Research Council Linkage Project (LP140100373) – ‘Human-animal relationships in zoos: Optimising animal and visitor experiences’

Australian Government Research Training Program scholarship


Chiew SJ et al (2020) Effect of covering a visitor viewing area window on the behaviour of zoo-housed little penguins (Eudyptula minor). Animals (Basel) 10(7): 1224. doi: 10.3390/ani10071224

Chiew SJ et al (2019) The effect of regulating zoo visitor-penguin interactions on zoo visitor attitudes. Frontiers in Psychology 10: 2351. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02351

Chiew SJ et al (2019) Effects of regulating visitor viewing proximity and the intensity of visitor behaviour on little penguin (Eudyptula minor) behaviour and welfare. Animals (Basel) 9(6): 285. doi: 10.3390/ani9060285

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Banner image: Samantha Chiew

First published on 2 March 2022.

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