Developing Children’s Ability to Recognize Animal Emotions – What Does It Take? A Study at the Zoo

Sílvia Rocha (1), Augusta Gaspar (1)(2), & Francisco Esteves (1)(3)
(1) Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL), Cis-IUL,
(2) Faculty of Human Sciences, Universidade Católica Portuguesa, Lisboa &
(3) Department of Psychology, Faculty of Human Sciences, Mid Sweden University, Östersund, Sweden

Several factors are known to affect children’s identification of human emotions, but information is virtually inexistent regarding how they develop their ability to identify animal emotions. I this study we approached factors likely to influence children’s identification of animal emotions in zoos settings, such as age, variables related to information and experience with animals, the quality of animal facilities and children’s sensitivity to the animals’ captive environments. Semi-structured interviews were conducted in 2 European zoos with 164 children (ages 3-13yrs old) in front of chimpanzee, gorilla and orangutan facilities during emotional events. Questions included information on pet ownership, zoo visits and multiple other forms of contact with animals. A coding scheme was created following content analysis and answers were coded for emotion identification, exposure/information, environmental awareness, setting and demographic variables. Most children correctly identified emotion events (87,2%). Following the inspection of the distribution of the various types of relevant experience, and of the correlations between possible predictors and accurate emotion identification, we tested a regression model with age, pet ownership and visiting animal sanctuaries as predictors. The model explained 41, 6% of variance and confirmed that all three variables made a significant contribution to accurate emotion identification. These results suggest that children’s identification of animal emotions might be influenced by maturation and relevant informative experience – features that are common to the identification of human emotions. We discuss further ways to explore the roles of information and of developing processes that may play a role in the identification of animal emotions.

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