Completing research in a pandemic - a student's experience


Funding student research is an important part of what we do, giving students an insight into the world of research and the opportunity to make a practical difference to animal welfare.

In 2019 we granted funding to Sheryl Bradley, an MSc student of International Animal Welfare, Ethics and Law at the University of Edinburgh, for her project ‘The effects of change of keeper and level of human-animal relationship on the behaviour of Kikuyu black-and-white colobus (Colobus guereza kikuyuensus) and Scarlet Ibis (Eudocimus ruber)’. In this piece Sheryl reflects on her experiences, including the challenges of conducting research in a pandemic.

Early in 2020 I had the privilege of being awarded the Animal Welfare Foundation Student Research Grant for my MSc dissertation project entitled ‘The effects of change of keeper and level of human-animal relationship on the behaviour of kikuyu black-and-white colobus (colobus guereza kikuyuensus) and scarlet ibis (eudocimus ruber)’.

This project aimed to determine if human-animal relationships (HARs) and human-animal bonds (HABs) are present and reciprocal within a zoo, as well as identify if the changing of the keeper taking care of the animal had any effect on the behaviour of the studied species. Evidence suggests that HABs exist between keepers and the animals in their care and can improve welfare, but that these bonds are dependent on management styles and other factors. To fulfil the aims of this project, this study combined strength of relationship scores from an adapted version of the Lexington Attachment to Pets Scale (LAPS) with animal behavioural data, which was collected by using two GoPro cameras in each enclosure. Twelve scarlet ibis and eleven kikuyu black-and-white colobus and their keepers were studied at the ZSL London Zoo. Behavioural data was obtained over a period of 28 days for each species using camera footage captured during periods of husbandry provision.

At the time of being awarded the grant, the project was underway and running smoothly. I was in the process of collecting video data for my first species, the scarlet ibis, and was able to access the cameras daily and be on standby for any (expected) camera malfunctions.

Come March I was ready to start video data collection on my second species, the colobus.  However, within days of starting this collection the lockdown began. This resulted in major restrictions on who was allowed on site at the zoo and as a result many student projects were stopped. As a front-line member of staff, I still had access to the zoo for work but on a limited number of days to reduce contact with other members of staff. Although I was extremely lucky that I could continue my project, I could no longer complete camera management by myself so had to rely on other members of staff to turn cameras on and off and refresh batteries and memory cards. Extra equipment was needed to ensure there were enough memory cards for staff to replace full ones whilst I was offsite. I would then download the footage on my days at the Zoo.

Video recording was not without its hiccups, and not being able to travel to the zoo to help with these issues was extremely frustrating at times. But with the help of the primate keepers (my COVID camera custodians) I was able to collect a sufficient data set for the project. The challenges of COVID-19 were not just limited to the data collection process, they potentially extended into the data set as well. As primates were on the list of species susceptible to the virus, non-essential interactions such as training were put on hold, potentially impacting the number of keeper-animal interactions seen during the study. The behaviour of the Colobus may have also been affected by the lack of visitors on site and as keeper numbers were reduced their routines were most likely impacted too.

A dataset was obtained that proved enough for my MSc project, and provided results that felt robust enough in spite of the lockdown challenges we faced. Results identified that keepers had relationships of varying strengths with the animals they work with. This strength did depend in some part on species, but despite the potential for the keeper to feel bonded with their animals, the behavioural data obtained suggests that this was not reciprocated by the animals in their care. The behaviours of the scarlet ibis and the colobus did not change significantly between keepers, even on days when keepers were changed over.

The restricted data set and small sample sizes obtained may limit my opportunities to publish this work, but I remain optimistic and will aim to pursue publication, even as a short communication style piece. Overall, whilst I might not recommend completing research during a global pandemic, my experience demonstrates that with the help of others it can be done! Thank you to my COVID camera custodians (shown below), who without their support I could not have achieved this research, and to the AWF for having faith in my ability to carry out the research despite the challenges faced by COVID-19.

You can download her final report here.

Camera helpers