Investigating the effect of social grouping on the behaviour of captive leopards
Keywords:activity budget, Electivity Index, felid, Panthera pardus, sociality
Big cats are both popular and well represented in zoological collections worldwide, and there is considerable interest in evidence-based studies to develop best practice husbandry guidelines. The majority of big cat species, including the leopard Panthera pardus are typically solitary in the wild, whereas in zoos they are sometimes maintained as pairs or larger groups. This study investigates the behaviour of six leopards housed as a trio, a pair, and singleton in the Parco Faunistico Valcorba, Italy. Behavioural data were collected using instantaneous focal sampling at one-minute intervals with continuous recording for events, and Electivity Index was used to assess the use of each enclosure zone by individual leopards. Poisson regressions were used to determine whether individual leopard, weather and decibel levels were predictors of behaviour change. Overall, the Poisson regressions were significant for all behaviours except allogrooming. Both affiliative and aggressive behaviours were observed most frequently in the recently mixed trio, and these were often initiated by the male. By contrast, the pair of leopards rarely interacted with one another.
Irrespective of condition, leopards tended to overutilize a few key zones in their exhibits and did not use their enclosures evenly. However, there were differences in zone overlap: the pair housed leopards appeared to use different zones to one another, whilst the trio of leopards appeared to use similar zones. These data suggest that group housing may be a viable housing strategy for leopards, provided that the animals are given the opportunity to avoid each other should they choose to do so. However, personality and compatibility of leopards is likely to be a confounding factor that must be considered when developing group-housing husbandry strategies. Further studies with a focus on group housing of other felid species would be valuable to evidence-base their captive husbandry.
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