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Placement student spotlight: Madi Farmer

Place of study: Plymouth University

Course: BSc Biological Sciences (Zoology)

Placement focus: Giraffe Behaviour

We caught up with placement student Madi, who is using a judgement bias test to find out if there’s a relationship between behaviour, forelimb-bias and ‘optimism’ in giraffes. Depending on the results of her research, the outcomes could lead more applications of cognitive bias testing across all zoos as an effective method of welfare monitoring.

Q. Tell us a bit about yourself…

A. I grew up in the Midlands and spent a large majority of my childhood outside in nature and this pattern has continued as I’ve gotten older. In first school, we had a famous person dress up day and, while most people came as princesses and footballers, I dressed up as Steve Irwin! My interests haven’t changed much in 13 years. I love photography and hiking and these are both things I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of while I’m here. I’m looking forward to the nicer weather so I can appreciate the coastal paths and sunsets more.

Q. Why did you choose Paignton Zoo for your placement?

A. I chose Paignton Zoo for my placement as it gave me the opportunity to plan and carry out my own research project while applying and developing all of the skills I’ve been taught at uni so far. I moved down to Devon for uni and it’s the ideal location for my interests. Paignton Zoo is somewhere I have visited all of my life and I have many memories here, so being able to do my placement here too was perfect.

Q. What animals are you working with?

A. I am lucky enough to be working with our group of five Rothschild’s giraffe. Part of my project requires training them to associate different colours with different rewards. Giraffes have good vision and our individuals have all previously been target trained which will hopefully make the task simpler.

Q. What do you enjoy most and least about your research?

A. Spending a large proportion of my days with the giraffes, which will soon involve training them, is easily the highlight. But aside from just working with such cool animals, I’ve most enjoyed working with and hearing input from some of the experts from the field of cognitive bias.

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The worst part is having to stand outside for hours in the cold and rain, collecting behavioural data. If I’m lucky, Stu the keeper will leave the heaters on inside the giraffe house for me!

Q. What are you hoping to get out of your research?

A. I’m hoping to reach the testing phase with the giraffes and for us to come out with some significant results – and for the process to run smoothly – which could then lead to the cognitive bias testing process being more easily applicable to zoo settings. That way it can be used across other species in our zoo and even in other zoos. Cognitive bias testing can provide a valuable welfare measure so its regular use in zoos has great potential for welfare monitoring. 

Q. What are your future plans?

A. I’m still unsure on what I want to do in the future but I know I want to go into a career related to research or conservation. Researching animal cognition this year has given me a new avenue of interest and I am keen to see how the field develops in the future. I’m looking forward to returning to university and applying all the new skills I’ve acquired while I’ve been here.

Q. Do you have any special moments from your placement that you can share with us?

A. I’ve already had so many special moments, so here’s a top 5:

  • The first time I got to feed the giraffes
  • The first time I saw Tolock the maned wolf after years of visiting and never seeing him
  • Helping to weigh the Aldabra giant tortoises
  • Helping to carry flamingos to their new enclosure
  • My first glimpse of Ranbi, the baby orang-utan