Petting zoos need quality label, say Ghent researchers


While Flanders’ many petting zoos are generally well run, there is a lack of knowledge in animal health and welfare, say researchers from HoGent

Separating the sheep from the goats

Researchers at Hogeschool Gent (HoGent) are calling for a quality mark for petting zoos and a more professional approach to ensure the proper care of animals.

Veterinarians Bonnie Valgaeren and Lieve Meulemans are working on a research project to map the living conditions of sheep and goats at petting zoos and to draw up practical guidelines to promote animal welfare. Their team examined 15 farms, and while all received a positive report for space and hygiene, some of the animals are experiencing a great deal of stress.

The researchers studied the stress levels of sheep and goats, using hair and saliva samples. “We measure the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva and wool,” said Valgaeren. “Using this we can see if the animals have experienced stress in the previous weeks.”

Stress can have a number of causes. The general rule is: the more noise, the more stress, while the combination of animals can also be an issue. Sheep and goats shouldn’t be kept in the same field, for instance, and while goats prefer to live in small groups, sheep are happier in large herds.

There are no clear guidelines, and no agencies to consult in order to know how best to treat the animals

- Dr Bonnie Valgaeren

Other areas that need work include a lack of knowledge about animal health care and appropriate nutrition. “In principle, anyone who wants to can start a petting zoo,” said Valgaeren. “There are no clear guidelines, and no agencies to consult in order to know how to approach it and how best to treat animals.”

That’s why the pair are suggesting a quality label, which would be established by the sector. Such a system already exists in the Netherlands, providing guidelines on hygiene, safety and welfare.

Although most children’s farms are small-scale, they can have a considerable impact. For example, small farm animals often have a positive effect on the well-being of children with a disability or with a difficult social background, while farms can teach children who grow up in an urban environment a lot about agriculture.

“Sometimes that learning effect is challenging,” notes Valgaeren. “At the petting zoo, the children can cuddle the piglets, but they also learn that they might end up as the meatballs on their plates. ”

The HoGent research project involves well-being evaluations, undercover inspections, focus groups and surveys, as well as data collection. The researchers are processing the data, which will lead to workshops, training sessions and proposals for improvement.

Photo courtesy Ruminaai/HoGent