Animal ambassador programs are increasingly prevalent in zoos, yet few studies have investigated their impact on animal welfare. We assessed the effects of an ambassador program on the behavior of a colony (N = 15) of zoo-housed African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) and evaluated whether individual characteristics were predictive of participation. Behavioral data were collected for 16 weeks and included 43 “penguin encounters”, during which zoo visitors entered a designated portion of the penguins’ enclosure. When comparing colony behavior following encounters to behavior during a matched control period lacking an encounter, we found no significant difference between affiliative or aggressive behaviors, suggesting that the encounters did not disrupt interactions in the colony. The same was true when comparing behavior preceding the encounter to a matched control period, indicating that any anticipatory period was similarly non-disruptive. Space use during encounters suggested comfort near visitors. We also measured penguin temperament on the shy-bold continuum by recording the birds’ response to novel objects and found that penguins’ temperament, sex, and age were predictive of participation. We concluded that this program had a neutral or positive impact on penguin welfare and considered the findings in relation to aspects of the ambassador program that provided penguins with control over their involvement.
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