NTU Students

Dissertation data collection at the zoo; a step-by-step guide.

So you want to do research at the zoo? 

During my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, I collected data across three UK zoos for my theses related to animal welfare. Now as the research and conservation administrator at Twycross zoo, I receive and process research project applications and arrange data collection for university students. I wanted to create a step-by-step guide to ensure you, and the zoo, get the most out of collecting your data in a zoo environment! 

Why collect data at the zoo? 

A zoo is a great place for your research project, and a really unique opportunity to conduct meaningful research related to animal welfare, conservation, and health. Also, you can basically just watch animals all day!? That’s the theory, in reality, its long hours, repetitive, hearing visitors call penguins ducks and dealing with undesirable weather.


1. Plan ahead 

It’s true that your final year will go surprisingly quick, but you have plenty of time to conduct a first-class project. 

What about those few months you’re off over the summer? 

This is a great time to collect data where you are not working around lectures, part-time jobs and not to mention hangovers. Even 1-2 days a week could total 8-16 days worth of valuable data. If the zoo has a “review time” make sure you factor this in. Frankly, you are not the zoos priority, and they are unlikely to speed up the process because you have left it till the last minute, so plan ahead. When can you get university ethical approval? Are you doing lab analysis? Do you need to buy equipment? All of these things need to be planned for. 

2. Decide what your research interest is 

Whether you already have a research interest or you have no idea, there is a world of projects out there. 

Some zoos will have lists of desired research projects, your allocated supervisor may have a specific specialism, or maybe you’ve found a gap in the literature. You can request project lists from some zoos, alternatively BIAZA have a desired research projects list which can be found here: https://biaza.org.uk/research-resources. 

The important thing is to do something which is of interest to you (it makes writing about it easier!). When deciding on a topic, ensure it is achievable and impactful. Ask questions such as; 

  • Is this topic novel? 
  • How does this benefit all parties (animals, zoological organisation, zoo staff, you)? 
  • How much time will this require? 
  • Are their ethical implications? 

From the zoo perspective, zoo’s will have different regulations on what kind of projects you can and can’t do. Generally, nothing invasive or any changes to general husbandry and diet. Remember, zoos could also collect samples for you, poo is very easy to obtain! But don’t ask for any data unless you clearly explain why it is important and do intend to use it. This applies to surveys too. 

3. How much time can you commit? 

Some courses may have specific required data collection hours, but some don’t. So how much should you do? 

As much as possible! 

The more data you collect the more reliable and robust your study is, it also helps when it comes to the stats. I think about it this way; say I am looking at activity budgets… from 3 days of observing an animal could I reliably describe their general activity budget? Maybe they are having rest days, maybe the weather is bad, maybe it’s not their feed day? More is more! 

When will you collect your data? I’ve seen many research applications over the past few months investigating visitor effects on zoo species. An interesting topic, but think about it, when is best to get a representation of visitors? In the summer and school holidays? What about when the zoo is very busy with school children, usually around April to July? If you want to compare low and high visitor days, you will need to ask the zoo what times of year this would be achievable. 

Zoo’s will want to see you are committed to a sensible data collection time, to ensure the project is worthwhile for yourself and hopefully can provide some interesting information for the zoo also. 

4. Discuss with your supervisor 

Your supervisor is there for a reason, and has experience of conducting research, so use them. Make sure you discuss all aspects of your proposed project with them and ask about anything you are unsure of. 

5. The application or proposal 

Most zoos will ask for you to fill out an application form, or submit a proposal. The important things are the aim of the project, whether you’ve done your background research and your proposed methods so make sure this is detailed. 

Things to include in your methods: 

  • i. Your data collection period (e.g. 15 days across 6 weeks, 10-4pm) 
  • ii. Data collection method (e.g. which behavioural sampling method, faecal collection protocol) 
  • iii. If you require anything from the zoo (e.g. samples, animal information) 

Check out BIAZA’s research guidelines for some tips on this. If you are also interested in conducting a multi-zoo study, you can obtain a BIAZA Research Committee support letter which will help when approaching zoos, but also a requirement for some zoos to see (see extra information below!)

6. Prepare for the reality 

So, you’re ready to start data collection! 

On your first day, do a few hours of pilot study. Ensure your data collection sheets cover all aspects and you are able to observe what you need to. Data collection days can be long, repetitive and tiring. Make sure you take breaks to ensure you are fully focussed during collection. 

Think about other information you might need for your write up and gather it during your data collection. For example, animal ages, health status, husbandry routines, enclosure measurements, rather than trying to chase it later on! 

7. Enjoy, and make the most of it! 

You’re collecting data at the zoo! Enjoy it! 

However, do not think of this as just collecting data for your dissertation. Whatever career path you are planning on taking, or whether you don’t know, use this as an opportunity to gain practical experience, network and develop your skills. All of which will be beneficial for your future. Also, remember your thesis is proof of your ability to conduct a project, manage your time, contribute to science and be creative – so use it!

Extra information 

  • Are you thinking about a multi-zoo study? You can obtain a support letter from the BIAZA Research Committee which will help when approaching multiple zoos within the UK. https://biaza.org.uk/research-support
  • BIAZA Research Committee desired research project list: https://biaza.org.uk/research-resources 
  • Extensive research guidelines have been produced by the BIAZA Research Committee cover a variety of projects: https://biaza.org.uk/research-resources

By Freisha Patel

Freisha is an NTU Alumni Fellow. You can find out more about how to get involved with the Alumni Fellowship Programme here

Blog Administrator. Currently ran by co-author Emilia Denis. Emilia has studied Fashion Communication and Promotion at NTU between years 2017 and 2020.

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