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Visiting researcher spotlight: Elina Thomas-Jones

Place of study: Plymouth University

Course: BA (Hons) Anthropology

Research focus: Multi-Species Ethnography


We caught up with Elina, who is a visiting researcher at Paignton Zoo looking into the interactions and relationships between humans and giraffes. Her research is focused on behavioural differences between giraffes that were hand-reared by keepers versus the ones that were parent-reared. She’s also studying the differences in the manner in which giraffes interact with each other as well as how they respond to their keepers and the public. Elina has also been working part time as a visitor experience assistant at Paignton Zoo while she is studying at university.

Q. Why did you choose this topic for your dissertation?

A. When looking into what I was going to do my dissertation on, I knew that I wanted it to be a multi-species ethnography, it was just a case of narrowing it down to a particular topic. When I started looking into the keepers’ role as a caregiver, I came across the concept of hand-rearing. Through organising a meeting with Dr Holly Farmer (Research Manager at Wild Planet Trust – the conservation charity that oversees the running of both Paignton and Newquay Zoo), I wanted to determine which species, if any, had been hand-reared at Paignton Zoo. She quickly directed me to the giraffes, and I had no complaints!

Having previously conducted a study with the gorillas at Paignton Zoo at the beginning of 2022, I knew I wanted to return to Paignton to research my dissertation. Getting a job at Front of House in July also solidified this ambition. All summer I was thinking of ideas, talking to different people with more experience of the zoo, and figuring out exactly what angle I wanted to take with my research so that when the applications opened for visiting researchers, I immediately applied. 

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

A. The obvious answer is the fact I get to spend so much time with a herd of giraffes! Not many people get to say that they spend their days the same way. Honestly, the thing I enjoy most about my research is the relationships I am witnessing between this herd and their keepers.

PZ Giraffe Study LR 7

The cold weather is what I enjoy the least! As much as I love sitting there observing them all day, if I’m not wrapped up in what feels like thousands of layers, I think I would actually turn to ice sat in one spot all day.

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

A. I am still early in my research so it is hard to pull any conclusions this early, but I think the final paper will be very exciting to write. My initial hypothesis is that the giraffes that were hand-reared are the ones that will interact the most with their keepers, or are the ones with the stronger social relationships. Until further observations are made it is difficult to pinpoint the level of interactions.

Q. What are your future plans?

A. I know I should be focusing on getting through my third year but with an opportunity like this it is hard not to think about future prospects! Long term I would love to work in a role responsible for maintaining the conservation of endangered species. As cringe as it may sound, my childhood fixation was endangered species, and it has evidently carried on into adulthood.

After completing this research and dissertation, I am hoping to further my education and specialise more in multi-species anthropology in hopes of entering the field of work where my skills would benefit a conservation movement.

Q. Are there any funny anecdotes from your research that you can share with us?

A. Every day there seems to be a new memorable event: the giraffes are so fascinating that there could never be a boring day of observations. Saying this, there is one funny anecdote that immediately stands out.

Janica had been stubborn all day with the keeper on shift, acknowledging her name being called but refusing to move despite knowing exactly where she was meant to be going. The keeper was trying to get her into the separate stall so the others didn’t take her food, but Janica wanted none of it until another keeper came in and called her name once. There was a mixture of laughter and embarrassment at how stubborn she had been all day just to fold as soon as someone else called her name! Interactions like this are so interesting to observe, and it will be interesting to see if Janica always interacts in this way with this keeper or if she was just having a bit of an off day!