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Animals 2018, 8(10), 175;

The Effect of Extensive Human Presence at an Early Age on Stress Responses and Reactivity of Juvenile Ostriches towards Humans

Department of Animal Sciences, University of Stellenbosch, Private Bag X1, Matieland 7602, South Africa
Directorate Animal Sciences, Western Cape Department of Agriculture: Oudtshoorn Research Farm, P.O. Box 351, Oudtshoorn 6620, South Africa
School of Agriculture and Environment, Faculty of Science, The University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley, WA 6009, Australia
Institute of Biodiversity Animal Health and Comparative Medicine, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK
Directorate Animal Sciences, Western Cape Department of Agriculture: Elsenburg, Private Bag X1, Elsenburg 7607, South Africa
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Received: 11 July 2018 / Revised: 12 September 2018 / Accepted: 19 September 2018 / Published: 5 October 2018
PDF [8959 KB, uploaded 8 October 2018]
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Simple Summary

Husbandry practices for rearing ostriches in commercial farming environments are currently not optimized. Ostrich chicks may experience stressful episodes and fear of humans during routine farm management practices such as handling, which ultimately may impact on their welfare and explain the poor production performance observed in this species. However, extensive human presence and regular gentle handling has been demonstrated to alleviate stress sensitivity during handling by lowering the fear of humans in other species; be they kept as livestock, in a laboratory, or as pet animals. In this study, ostrich chicks exposed to extensive human presence and gentle handling showed lower stress sensitivity when handled for feather harvesting and clipping and were more inclined to associate with familiar humans at a later stage of their life compared with chicks that had limited human presence and care. This suggests that providing ostrich chicks with extensive human presence and gentle handling at a young age can assist in improving ostrich welfare.


The effect of extensive human presence and regular gentle handling performed at an early age (0–3 months old) on stress responses and reactivity of juvenile ostriches towards humans was investigated. A total of 416 ostrich chicks over two years were exposed to one of three treatments for three months after hatching; namely, Human Presence 1 (HP1, N = 144): extensive/prolonged human presence with physical contact (touch, stroking), gentle human voice, and visual stimuli; Human Presence 2 (HP2, N = 136): extensive/prolonged human presence without physical contact, but with gentle human voice and visual stimuli; and the Standard treatment (S, N = 136): human presence limited to routine feed and water supply as a control. At 7.5 months of age, the plasma heterophil/lymphocyte (H/L) ratio was measured before and 72 h after feather harvesting and feather clipping to determine acute stress responses, while chronic stress was measured by quantification of corticosterone (CORT) concentrations in the floss feathers of the birds. Birds’ behavioural response towards a familiar or an unfamiliar handler was evaluated at 12 months using docility and fear tests, and through behavioural observations conducted on random days between the ages of 8–13 months. Willingness to approach, and to allow touch interactions, aggressiveness, and exhibition of sexual display towards the handler, was recorded. No difference in the H/L ratios before and after feather harvesting and clipping was observed in HP1 birds, whereas H/L ratios showed a significant increase 72 h post feather harvesting and clipping in HP2 and S birds (p < 0.05). Birds from the S treatment exhibited a significantly (p < 0.05) higher feather CORT concentration compared with HP1 birds, while HP2 birds had intermediate responses. Birds’ reactivity towards humans and temperament as evaluated using behavioural observations, docility, and fear tests was not affected by treatment (p > 0.05). However, HP1 and HP2 birds were more inclined (p < 0.05) to approach a familiar rather than an unfamiliar handler during the behavioural observations, indicating an ability to distinguish between a familiar and an unfamiliar handler. Overall, the results indicate that early gentle human interactions with ostrich chicks can be beneficial in reducing physiological stress sensitivity later in life and facilitate the ability of ostriches to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar handlers. View Full-Text
Keywords: welfare; stress responses; behaviour; ostrich; Struthio camelus welfare; stress responses; behaviour; ostrich; Struthio camelus

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Muvhali, P.T.; Bonato, M.; Engelbrecht, A.; Malecki, I.A.; Hough, D.; Robinson, J.E.; Evans, N.P.; Cloete, S.W.P. The Effect of Extensive Human Presence at an Early Age on Stress Responses and Reactivity of Juvenile Ostriches towards Humans. Animals 2018, 8, 175.

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