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Every semester just before exams, University of Canberra students are encouraged to unwind by taking part in Stress Less Week. A big part of this for many students is the opportunity to get up close and personal with rabbits, chickens, ducks and goats when the petting zoo comes to visit. This year, that’s all set to change as the University of Canberra puts an end to on-campus events featuring live animals.

Stress Less Week, which is coordinated by the University’s Student Engagement Directorate in collaboration with UCU, UniLodge and Medical & Counselling, is aimed at helping students alleviate stress ahead of their exams. However, for the animals kept in petting zoos, these interactions can often have the opposite effect.

Animal activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) approached the University of Canberra late last year with concerns for the welfare of the animals involved in the petting zoos, and suggested alternative activities to assist with stress-relief for students. This sparked a dialogue which ultimately led to the University’s decision to ban petting zoos on campus.

“We’re thrilled that UC has taken a compassionate stance on this issue and is open to ways to make the campus kinder,” PETA spokeswoman Emily Rice said.

“Universities are where the world’s next leaders, thinkers and change-makers are created, so having a dialogue that encourages students and educators to consider their fellow earthlings is welcomed.”

According to Ms Rice, petting zoos are often stressful for the animals involved, in part because, unlike their human visitors, the animals cannot leave when they’ve had enough.

“Usually, those displayed are babies – lambs, goats, or prey animals, like rabbits. Being confronted by hordes of humans in a loud, bright environment is terrifying for these animals,” Ms Rice said.

“You’ve got to remember, too, the animals don’t get to pass through the novelty of these displays like visitors do – each visitor sees themselves as just one person who is handling this animal and posing for selfies with it for a short time, but for the animal, that’s happening times one hundred, usually preventing them from acting on their natural behaviours, eating patterns and family life before they’re packed up and moved to the next event.”

Ms Rice explained that petting zoos also present other animal welfare concerns.

“We know some petting zoo operators feel they treat their animals well. For us, this isn’t the point, however – the point is that animals are not objects for entertainment. It’s also about the cycle these sorts of displays often promote of breeding animals for the purpose and replacing them when they are no longer ‘cute’. Lambs aren’t lambs forever!” Ms Rice said.

Just outside of Canberra, the reality of this can be seen within Little Oak Sanctuary, a not-for-profit organisation and charity that shelters farmed animals in need, including former petting zoo animals who were no longer wanted once they reached a certain age.

Sanctuary Founder and Operator Kate Luke believes that the University of Canberra’s decision to end petting zoos on campus is “ultimately the right one”, citing a range of issues for animal welfare, including mishandling, unsatisfactory care, denial of natural behaviours, breeding cycles, and travel trauma.

“Some petting zoos, including several local ones, home-slaughter the animals once they reach a certain age or size,” Ms Luke explained. “With nominal regulation of standard of animal care, there is no guarantee that animals in petting zoos are well looked after.”

“For the students and participants of Stress Less Week, it means the focus can return to productive, healthy means of reducing stress – ones that build student’s own resilience and capacity to manage their stress, such as yoga or mindfulness, rather than seeking external outlets that merely serve to temporarily distract them from their worries.”

At this stage, the University of Canberra has not ruled out animals on campus completely. In an interview with the ABC, UC Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Nick Klomp said that the university may hold events with animals in different ways.

According to Ms Luke, animals, as sentient beings, deserve to live their lives free from all forms of exploitation.

“It is important to be aware that humans have a natural tendency to adopt an anthropocentric viewpoint,” Ms Luke says. “We urge people to use their natural empathy and consider things from the animal’s point of view – if you want to know if something is ethical, genuinely consider whether you would like it done to yourself and you’ll have your answer.”

Although the UC is currently the only university that PETA has had a recent dialogue with, Ms Rice said they hope to have equally productive discussions with others in the near future.

“We will aim to educate promoters and the public about any event that places animals in captivity and sees them transported, housed unnaturally, handled and stressed for human amusement,” she said.

The University of Canberra has been contacted for comment.

For details about this year’s Stress Less Week, keep an eye out on UC Life’s Events page on Facebook.

Featured image by Hannah Markley on Unsplash