Zoo wild cats recognise familiar human voices but in the wild they are terrified of them

A recent study has been published on how “exotic cats” in zoos can discriminate between the voices of familiar and unfamiliar people. The cats were a group of different species of wild cat in different zoos, specifically the cheetah, clouded leopard, puma, fishing cat, Canada lynx, lion, sand cat, serval, snow leopard and tiger.

In essence, they played recordings of human voices with which they were either familiar or unfamiliar. They responded to the familiar sounds more quickly and with greater intensity than to the unfamiliar sounds. This was indicated by full head turns rather than partial head turns and “both ears moved versus one ear twitching”.

Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

This, to me, is expected because domestic cats are able to recognise their caregiver’s voice which is unsurprising. No surprise too that domestic cats can recognise their caregiver visually which is why they respond to their caregiver’s body language.

The wild cat species in this study were not domesticated but they were captive and therefore familiar with certain human voices. As I see it, they were semi-domesticated being held captive in zoos.

The scientists concluded that “close human contact rather than domestication is associated with the ability to discriminate between human voices”. Predictable, I would say.

They also suggest that species of animal generally which don’t live in groups and which are solitary essentially or in other words “less social species” may have “socio-cognitive abilities akin to those of more gregarious species”. In other words, solitary semi-domesticated wild cats have the abilities of more socially adept wild cat species such as the lion which lives in prides.

We shouldn’t just assume that sociality is only about group living and that only group living is important for cognition.

Prof Jennifer Vonk, of Oakland University, in Rochester, Michigan, who co-authored the research

Earlier study on fear of the human voice in the wild

Having read the study summary and a little of the discussion which has been made public (thank you), my mind immediately turned to another study conducted not long ago in which scientists placed loudspeakers around a waterhole in Africa and played human voices through those speakers (see link below).

The animals who came to the waterhole were terrified of human voices. I can remember a leopard holding a prey animal, perhaps an antelope, in their mouth and on hearing the human voice they dropped their prey animal and ran for their lives. Pretty impressive and very indicative of the fact that wild animals recognise the human as the top predator on the planet and a species to be feared.

THIS STUDY: African wildlife more frightened of humans than big predators like lions

This waterhole study came to a similar conclusion with an added twist: the human voice can signal apprehension and anxiety in wild species even the big iconic species like the leopard.

It’s why, leopards become nocturnal in regions where there are human settlements. They just need to avoid people.

To briefly return to this study, they said that the gender of the animal had no impact upon the results.

RELATED: Mountain lions try to avoid artificially lit areas, possibly to avoid interactions with humans

The study:

Crews T, Vonk J, McGuire M. 2024. Catcalls: exotic cats discriminate the voices of familiar caregivers. PeerJ 12:e16904 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.16904

Leave a Comment

follow it link and logo