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Sign Systems Studies

Volume 47, Issue 3/4, 2019

Mirko Cerrone
Pages 453-479

Keepers as social companions
Tactile communication and social enrichment for captive apes

The article addresses the topic of great ape–keeper tactile communication. The aim of this paper is to understand whether direct physical contact can be considered a source of enrichment for captive apes and whether it could be used to enhance animal welfare in zoos. We make use of a multispecies perspective provided by umwelt theory in an attempt to determine the role of touch in zoological gardens. By referring to Konrad Lorenz, we describe keeper–animal relationships as a special case of companionship, highlighting the role of keepers in apes’ social behaviour. The paper considers social touch as the primary means used by social animals to create and maintain increasingly complex relationships. Since tactile communication in interspecific contexts has been underestimated previously, our theoretical framework allows for a better understanding of physical contact in zoological gardens without assuming an anthropocentric point of view. Our hypothesis is that physical contact with keepers may provide enriching opportunities for social animals and help strengthen the bond between animals and their keepers. We emphasize that ape–animal interactions in zoos need to involve keeper–animal physical contact as a possible means for enhancing the apes’ welfare.