Animal magnetism: the importance of personality among beasts

Personality in animals is no longer seen as wishy-washy pseudo-science but rather an important aspect of animal welfare and conservation

Asha the elephant (7) loves climbing. She seems to enjoy the novelty of being taller than the others. Her trunk is up, the ears are out and she looks excited, says her keeper, Brendan Walsh, in Dublin Zoo. He's in no doubt that Asha has her own elephant personality.

Her aunt Yasmin (24) is the most animated and confident of the clan; you might even wrongly assume she's the matriarch. That lead role belongs to her calmer sister, Dina (30).

Research into individual differences in animals was once seen as wishy-washy stuff tainted by anthropomorphism. But then personality was scientifically documented in many species, from chimps and hyenas to squids and songbirds. It has even been linked to survival rates and examined in terms of genetics.

Irish scientist Dr Thomas Quirke is studying personality in wild cat species in South African zoos. He believes knowing an animal's personality can help zoos to improve animal welfare and can prove useful in conservation projects. The University College Cork graduate – now at the University of Pretoria – is investigating personality in two medium-sized cat species, caracals and servals. He hopes to show that by scientifically scoring personality, zoos can better tune enclosures to suit the individual.

Usually cat species are solitary, often with large ranges, so enriching their enclosures in captivity is important. For a few species it is possible to keep a number of individuals together, but here differences come out.

Social and anti-social cheetahs

Fota Wildlife Park director Sean McKeown recalls a group of about a dozen cheetahs kept together in Dubai and how some were more social than others. “We kept them together in a larger enclosure, mostly males. Some animals formed little cohorts, others stayed on their own and others would interact with everybody,” he says.

He says keepers at Fota often name animals after quirky behaviours. “We had Frisky the giraffe. This individual was always jumping around the place, but could be quite dangerous. She would pretend to ignore you, and then suddenly try to hit you with her head.”

In the past, such observations were treated as interesting anecdotes, but scientists now systematically score animals according to various adjectives. One recent assessment of African elephants in San Diego Zoo discovered that people can identify personalities reliably and accurately. Traits such as playfulness, curiosity, shyness, confidence, energy and gentleness were scored by keepers and objective observers under three different conditions, and strong correlations were reported over two summer seasons.

Quirke is adding to such evidence by scoring caracals and servals – about 15 animals in all – in the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa in Pretoria, and Johannesburg Zoo in South Africa.

“I’ve selected 26 adjectives that I feel are relevant to caracals and servals, and keepers will rate them on those adjectives,” says Quirke. “Then I’ll do a principal- component analysis, which will allow me to score each cat on a number of personality traits. This is all about collecting rigorous data over a period of time.”

He will then introduce three types of enrichment to the cats' enclosures and observe them for four to five hours each day to monitor behavioural changes and effects on personality. For example, little balls of straw infused with scents such as cinnamon or catnip, smells they would not normally encounter, will be introduced. New hiding places, such as a house made of wood, will be introduced to offer the cats a new place to explore. A rawhide ball will be added that will spill out food when it is investigated by caracal and serval paws.

Knowing that an animal is shy or timid could allow zoos to decide against exhibiting that individual or to intervene and place more hides or quiet sanctuary areas.

Evolutionary benefit

Animal personalities are not a chance spin-off. Evolution has opted to keep a range of personalities. Which personality type wins out depends on conditions. This might mean captivity could favour particular personality types, but for now it seems that the debate over whether animals have personality has been resolved. “Anyone who thinks animals don’t have personalities hasn’t been around animals,” says Walsh.

The more intelligent the animal, the easier it is to spot personalities. And one of the adult elephants is particularly hot on food finding. “Yasmin is brilliant at finding any food we bury. We put it 30cm to 40cm down into the sand, but she was quicker and better at finding the buried beet than the rest of them,” he says. “She was eating almost all of it, and we had to make changes as she started gaining weight.”

Yasmin and her big sister, Dina, might even be tagged as innovative: they kick sand to construct a platform in order to better reach the hoist with hay in it. “We regularly get our tractor out and push it back down flat to keep it challenging for them,” says Walsh.


Personality matters not just for animal welfare but also for conservation. Dr Thomas Quirke studied cheetahs while at University College Dublin. He observed them for hundreds of hours, in a number of zoos, and says gauging different personalities could be important if reintroductions to the wild were ever needed.

"Long term, the whole goal of having them in zoos is to provide an insurance policy in case they go extinct in the wild, while also providing the public with education about wildlife and conservation," says Quirke, who was funded by the Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology.

Reintroductions of once-common species such as tigers, elephants and rhinos might be necessary in some areas of the world in future years. Yet the survival of released animals is often low, and it turns out that personality is one factor in the mix.

“The kind of research I am doing could allow us see which animals are more suitable for reintroductions,” says Quirke.

The issue was raised when swift foxes were bred in captivity and then released into the wilds of Montana. This small canid is endangered in the US. Cautious foxes did better than bold foxes: those that died within six months were all described as bold.

However, which personality proves to be a winning one depends on the environment you release animals into, as studies of birds have shown.