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Student spotlight: End of year round-up

As our placement students reach the end of the academic year and their time at Paignton Zoo, we spoke to a couple of them to see how their year went, the outcomes of the research and some of the things that most surprised them.

Madi Farmer

Place of study: Plymouth University

Course: BSc Biological Sciences (Zoology)

Placement focus: Giraffe behaviour

Madi Farmer was using a judgement bias test to find out if there’s a relationship between behaviour, forelimb-bias and ‘optimism’ in giraffes. Part of her project required training them to associate different colours with different rewards. Depending on the results of her research, the outcomes could lead to more applications of cognitive bias testing across all zoos as an effective method of welfare monitoring.


Q. What was the outcome of your research?

A. Just like handedness in humans, many other animal species have the same limb preferences. I found that three of our giraffes are ‘right hoofed’, while the other two are ‘left hoofed’.

The main part of my project was conducting a judgement bias test on Otilie and although we were cutting it very close for time, we did manage to get results and I’m very happy to report that she judged the ambiguous cue optimistically on all occasions. This means she has been deemed to be optimistic!

Q. What was the most surprising thing you discovered?

A. Just because an animal exhibits some unusual behaviours, this isn’t necessarily a sign of poor mental state. Having the tools to be able to accurately assess mental state is very valuable in these situations, and judgement bias tests provide scope to do this within zoos.  

Q. What’s next for you? Has your experience at Paignton Zoo changed your future plans?

A. I’m off to Australia for the summer to conduct some research on an island in the Great Barrier Reef and then I’ll be going back to university to finish my undergraduate Zoology degree. Hopefully after this I will complete a research Masters too.

My placement year at Paignton Zoo has confirmed to me that I want to pursue a career in research. It has given me a huge variety of new skills and knowledge and a newfound interest in animal training.

Morgan Jarvis

Place of study: University of Manchester

Course: BSc Biological Sciences (Zoology)

Placement focus: Behavioural observations

Morgan Jarvis was carrying out behavioural observations on individual animals to monitor their diet, enrichment and how they interact with their environment. She also looked at the way they act in social settings to evaluate their overall quality of life. She looked specifically at Pierre the mangrove monitor lizard, Tilly and Florrie the giraffes and Manyara the rhino, as these animals had identified health or behavioural concerns.

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Q. What was the outcome of your research?

A. The aims of using the quality of life (QoL) assessment was to mitigate any welfare concerns each animal had. My first case study, Pierre, successfully had actions implemented which improved his overall QoL score in his second assessment! For Manyara, a long-term management plan has been actioned to further improve his QoL. So both of these assessments have been successful, which highlights how useful the toolkit is in informing management plans for collections.

Q. What was the most surprising thing you discovered?

A. How sensitive animals are to change! Even the smallest modifications to their environment can make a big difference to their demeanour and activity. Understanding this is really important for assessing their welfare.

Q. What’s next for you? Has your experience at Paignton Zoo changed your future plans?

A. Going back to university and graduating! I’m planning on travelling after and perhaps pursuing a conservation Masters somewhere abroad. I’m definitely interested in pursuing a career in zoo-based research now so it’d be great to do more in this area!

Study at Paignton Zoo

We are lucky to have a highly knowledgeable team of industry professionals working at the zoo, ready to pass on their expertise.

Our placement programme has been tailor-made to enable students to gain experience in a wide range of techniques and is designed to work within university undergraduate industrial year programmes.

PLEASE NOTE: Applications for the 2023/2024 academic year are now closed.