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Keywords:

  • animal handling;
  • animal training;
  • welfare;
  • keeper-animal bonds;
  • zoo visitor education

Despite the potential dangers involved, interactions between zookeepers and captive big cats are increasing. Research with other animals, particularly nonhuman primates, suggests that closer interactions can be beneficial not only for the animals and their keepers, but also for zoo visitors. This study sought to determine whether the same benefits may apply to keeper-big cat interactions. An online questionnaire was completed by 86 keepers worldwide, assessing which types of handling (hands-on, protected, hands-off) they practice with their big cats, whether they practice training, and what their opinions of these methods are (through a series of rating scales and open-ended questions). Protected contact was the most frequently used handling method among this sample, particularly with lions, tigers, and cheetahs, and training was practiced by the majority of participants with all big cat species. Participants perceived protected contact as the most beneficial handling practice for big cats, keepers, and visitors, noting how it can allow a close bond between keeper and cat, as well as its educational value for zoo visitors. Contrastingly, concerns were raised about the use of hands-on approaches, particularly with regard to the safety of all parties involved and the potential for wrong messages to be sent to visitors. Further, training was reported to be more beneficial for each group than any handling practice, yielding similar potential benefits as protected contact. Consistent with existing information with other species, these findings will be useful in directing objective research examining the use of different handling and training methods with big cats. Zoo Biol. 32:142–151, 2013. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.