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    Science For Sanctuaries: Visual Barriers

    A brownish cavy (guinea pig) sticks their nose out of a wooden hut.

    Non-Compassionate Sources
    We at The Open Sanctuary Project disavow animal experimentation and any “use” of animals for human purposes. Because compassionate studies on valuing the personality, intelligence, and unique attributes of many nonhuman animals are rare, in this resource, we draw from existing sources that may be non-compassionate. Still, we may use the information we find to improve the lives of residents. We strive towards a future when compassionate, non-exploitive, and non-invasive research is the norm. In the meantime, we will work with what we have to help sanctuaries help animals as effectively as possible. You can read a little bit more about our non-compassionate source policy here.

    Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

    Welcome to another Science For Sanctuaries Resource! If you are a caregiver, you have likely found yourself brainstorming creative ways to improve the lives of all your sanctuary residents. In this resource, we will review what is known about how the presence of visual barriers and hiding places may affect residents and how a better understanding of this could help you provide better care. Are visual barriers helpful? Are there issues that arise from having visual barriers? Does the type of barrier matter? Can it affect behavior or stress levels? Luckily, numerous studies on this topic have covered a range of species, from tigers to gorillas to chickens!1,2,3 As a note, we didn’t find studies on the topic of camelids or equines, so they are not included in this resource. Many studies indicate that providing visual barriers/hiding places may promote positive welfare for various nonhuman animal species.1,2,3,4 In this resource, we will briefly examine the current research available and whether the findings have application in sanctuary settings.

    Considering Natural Behavior

    When building, designing, or adding elements to a resident’s living space, it’s important to consider the species (as well as the individual) and which elements may encourage natural behaviors. The ability to perform natural behavior can promote positive welfare (though some natural behaviors can indeed have a negative effect in certain contexts, such as fighting).5,6,7,8 In contrast, a lack of opportunity to perform natural behaviors has been shown to contribute to the development of abnormal behaviors, psychological distress, and physical health issues.9,10,11 Keeping this in mind, ensuring that residents have a place to “hide” or simply remove themselves from the view of others would, in theory, improve welfare. But let’s see what the research has to say:

    The Research

    Generally, we do a mini meta-analysis of the existing research available on the topic in this series. (A meta-analysis is a paper that tries to find all the available research on a topic to ascertain what is known or not about the subject.) This time, someone beat us to it! In 2022, a meta-analysis was published on existing studies examining how visual barriers or hiding places affected goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, rabbits, fishes, foxes, and a few additional species.5 They examined hundreds of studies and found 151 that met their criteria! It is important to note that half the studies they found specifically researched the use of hiding places in animals that were ready to lay eggs or give birth through an agricultural lens. Let’s take a look at some of the outcomes of their analysis:

    • Overall, the provision of hiding places had positive outcomes in 74% of the studies, 6% had negative outcomes, and 19% of outcomes were found to be either neutral or inconclusive in their results.
    • Several studies found that the presence of hiding spaces decreased confrontational behaviors.
    • A few studies found an increase in confrontational behaviors thought to be due to competition over accessing the hiding space, indicating its value, or because it limited the rest of the area the group had to use.
    • A number of studies also found that animals given hiding space had fewer injuries. One found the opposite due to competition over hiding spaces in catfish.
    • There were 14 outcomes related to the effect of hiding spaces on the presence of abnormal behaviors. In all cases, the abnormal behaviors decreased when animals were provided with hiding spaces.
    • Among a number of the studies, they found outcomes related to affective states (emotions), 23 reporting positive affective states (emotions), 4 negative affective states, and 8 neutral affective states.

    While the above findings are interesting, what information does this really provide sanctuaries about how residents might do with hiding places available? Since this meta-analysis included a number of different species, how does this data break down into useful information for farmed animal sanctuaries? Let’s dig a little deeper into the details:


    A reddish and yellowish colored hen nestles under bushes and other plants.
    Chicken Data
    Studies involving chickens made up 48% of the 151 studies analyzed. “Laying hen” studies comprised 84% of the studies on chickens, and 15% focused on large breed chickens. The studies with “laying hens” provided nest boxes. The young and adult large-breed chickens were provided straw bales as horizontal and vertical hiding structures. In the studies with chickens, the focus was either on providing hides for laying or enrichment. The overall findings indicated that providing hides had positive outcomes. Other studies back these findings up, finding that chickens used their entire living area more when there was a vertical visual barrier and rested and preened more. Another study noted chickens utilized their outdoor living space more thoroughly when provided overhead cover.

    Notable Information For Sanctuaries: Providing a variety of covered areas and visual barriers is generally a positive step for chicken residents and may encourage them to use more of their living area, rest, and preen more, depending on the type of visual barrier provided. It also creates an interesting visual environment! Overhead coverage is important for a sense of safety and also protection from HPAI.


    Several black and white cows peak out from behind a large leafy tree.
    Cow Data
    Cows were represented in 9% of the studies reviewed. Most of these studied dairy cow behavior during and after pregnancy. Some studies did show a reduction in confrontational behaviors. Another study with calves showed an increase in affiliative behaviors. However, these studies are quite limited, given the focus on pregnancy.

    Notable Information For Sanctuaries: Unfortunately, we couldn’t glean much from this research. However, it can be important to ensure pregnant residents and those with young calves have safe spaces that may include visual barriers and even separate living arrangements. Additionally, it can be beneficial in reducing confrontations if residents can remove themselves from sight of another individual.


    Several ducks, one white, one brown, one black and white are in a yard with different bushes and foliage that can act as a visual barrier between individuals.
    Duck Data
    While this data set only provided three research papers on ducks, findings indicate a strong motivation for hens to access private nest boxes. They discuss how ducks will seek vegetation or other sources of cover when concerned about predators. In addition to these findings, veterinary sources are recommending visual barriers to reduce stress and confrontational behavior between bird residents, particularly around mating seasons.12

    Notable Information For Sanctuaries: Residents may feel safer outside when given vegetation or other cover sources, such as a shade material spread across the top of their outdoor living spaces. Visual barriers are highly recommended to reduce stress and confrontations, especially during mating seasons. This can protect residents from sustaining injuries and assault. Overhead coverage is important for a sense of safety and also protection from HPAI.


    A fish hides in the greenery in an aquarium.
    Fishes Data
    Studies including fishes made up 7% of the total studies found. These studies included a variety of species, including catfish, steelhead, char, tilapia, wrasse, and bream. All types of fish studied used the cover provided (plants, PVC tubes, and/or overhead cover). Some studies did show a reduction in confrontational behaviors, though two others found increased confrontational behaviors as individuals competed for limited hiding areas/visual barriers. They posit it could be due to competition over a lack of covered areas or decreased living space for others outside the cover. Studies also showed a decrease in abnormal behaviors in fishes.

    Notable Information For Sanctuaries: Generally speaking, providing fish residents with multiple options for hiding is beneficial. Confrontations may occur in overcrowded spaces or those with few barriers for a larger group size. It is also important to research the type of fishes you are caring for to provide the best type of barriers.


    4 goats peak out of a wooden playground that allows various visual barrier opportunities.
    Goat Data
    Female goats tend to separate from the herd, look for cover when giving birth, and hide their young to protect them. Other studies found that adding walls and different elevated spaces reduces conflict in social groups. And, let’s be honest, we all likely know some goat residents who enjoy climbing all over things. This is a good example of animal-centered design or physical enrichment.

    Notable Information For Sanctuaries: Generally speaking, providing goat residents with various visual barriers that include elevated spaces, where appropriate, can reduce conflict among residents, and mothers with kids in the herd need spaces to provide cover for their young. It also creates a more dynamic living space.


    A large pig with black spots enters a domed structure that can provide shade and a visual barrier from others.
    Pig Data
    While sows (female pigs) are motivated to build nests and separate when preparing to give birth, other studies have found that group-housed pigs readily use partitions or walls as visual barriers while eating and resting. Another study showed that piglets had fewer confrontational interactions and, therefore, showed fewer signs of injury when provided with “hides” (boxes). Another study found that partition placement might influence the effect of visual barriers. In this study, pigs in a large, extensively farmed system were provided T-shaped partitions. Findings included that pigs provided with these partitions still had confrontations and, in some cases, more injuries to their ears. However, there were fewer tail injuries, belly-nosing behavior, and less pen manipulation. This shows a lessening of abnormal behaviors and could suggest lower stress. The different placement of the partitions could be responsible for some of the contradicting results of the study.

    Notable Information For Sanctuaries: Given the opportunity, pig residents are likely to use visual barriers and separate themselves for some privacy. It is imperative to have enough space for them to have multiple “hides” so everyone can access visual barriers. Placement of the barriers may have some effect as well. However, given the studies focus on extensive farming systems, some of the findings may be less useful for sanctuaries so long as everyone has enough space to prevent confrontations.


    Two quail nestle down amongst plants with purple flowers for cover.
    Quail Data
    According to the findings of this paper, quail will readily use hiding walls and nest boxes. One study showed that providing these opportunities for privacy and security even affects the emotional reactivity of their babies after hatching! Quail will also use vegetation as a form of cover.

    Notable Information For Sanctuaries: Given the opportunity, quail residents will use visual barriers as it gives them a sense of security. The importance of this is highlighted in the fact that hens given hiding spaces during nesting will have chicks who are less emotionally reactive. Meaning they are less likely to be stressed and scared. Of course, sanctuaries don’t breed residents, but this study highlights how powerful it is to provide quail residents with opportunities to hide. Overhead coverage is important for a sense of safety and also protection from HPAI.


    A white rabbit peaks out of a red plastic rabbit house. They are in a fenced in outdoor living space with grass.
    Rabbit Data
    This review found and covered seven studies regarding rabbits. We know that, in the wild, rabbits dig their own dens for protection from predators and weather. Outside their burrow with their young, they will use vegetation to hide them and protect them from predators. Rabbits will also hide under leafy vegetation to avoid detection. In agricultural studies, farmed does (female rabbits) chose nesting boxes that offered more privacy. Another study found rabbits in enriched cages with boxes/platforms did better than those in traditional agricultural cages. However, another study found that providing visual barriers in the form of tubes and platforms did not reduce the number of injuries in group-housed lactating rabbits. Of course, these systems are exploitative and offer very different housing than should be found at a sanctuary, which could greatly affect the results.

    Notable Information For Sanctuaries: Wild rabbits live in dens and are at risk of predators from the sky and ground. They often use vegetation or their burrows to hide from predators. It is important to provide several options for rabbit residents to have cover. They may have different preferences, so offering tunnels, houses, vegetation, and other types of cover will give them a choice of where they feel most secure.


    A white sheep with black spots on their face curls up at the base of a large tree.
    Sheep Data
    Within this particular review of studies, they found five concerning sheep. Of those not concerning pregnant ewes or their recent babies, a study concluded that, regarding social behaviors, having more space may be more important than cover. However, this study did not consider the value of visual barriers as they pertain to humans or as protection from predators.

    Notable Information For Sanctuaries: Sheep may value more space over access to barriers, but as long as they have adequate space, providing barriers is still recommended so residents can hide away from visitors and other residents.


    A brown turkey peaks above tall tawny grasses to get a look around.
    Turkey Data
    While this review only found and covered a single study on turkeys, several other studies found the provision of visual barriers to positively affect turkeys living in groups.13,14 There were fewer injuries from confrontational situations, and it has the potential to provide a diverse, more enriching environment. The review noted that wild turkeys seek cover to protect themselves from predators and when selecting nest sites.

    Notable Information For Sanctuaries: Offer turkey residents opportunities to seek privacy from their peers. Doing so can reduce confrontations and injuries. It also creates a richer environment and offers more choices. Overhead coverage is important for a sense of safety and also protection from HPAI.

    It Isn’t Just About The Barriers
    Although the research indicates that providing visual barriers and hiding places for residents can help them avoid conflict, rest easier, and leave otherwise uncomfortable situations, it isn’t just the barrier that provides benefits. It’s about choice. Regarding barriers, whether to stay inside or go outside, what to eat, who to interact with -or not-, choice and autonomy play a big role in how a resident may feel about their environment. A lack of control contributes to stress. We will look more closely at how choice makes a difference in the lives of residents in a future resource.

    Limitations Of These Studies

    A blue circle with a darker blue ring contains a white hand indicating "stop".
    • Many of these studies focus on the behavior of pregnant or nesting individuals. The results, therefore, won’t necessarily be true of nonpregnant individuals or individuals nesting.
    • All of these studies come from a non-compassionate agricultural perspective. The environments and stressors on the animals involved in the studies are unlikely to simulate their care in sanctuary settings.
    • There are only one or two studies or inconclusive results in many species.

    Key Takeaways

    A graphic of a brown hand gripping a golden key on a teal background.

    While there were many different types of studies observing a number of species, the overall findings suggest that the provision of visual barriers has the potential to:

    • Decrease confrontational behaviors (IF enough visual barriers are provided to prevent competition between residents and these barriers don’t create a cramped living area)
    • Improve social relationships
    • Decrease abnormal behaviors
    • Lower stress levels
    • Increase resting behaviors
    • Increase positive emotive states (emotions) in residents.
    • Decrease injuries
    • Increase exploration of living space
    • Confrontations may occur due to limited space or competition over hiding areas/visual barriers.
    • Sometimes no difference is noted.

    Practical Applications For Sanctuaries

    Use Caution
    We cannot stress enough the importance of considering each individual, their history, temperament, social relationships, and health and paying close attention to their responses to any newly introduced enrichment. We do not know the full effects different visual barriers may have on individual residents. What feels safe and secure for one may be less so for another. 

    In a sanctuary setting, resident well-being is a top priority. Providing visual barriers and hiding places allows residents to be seen or seek private time. Some residents may prefer to be hidden away when tours or volunteer groups are onsite, while others may enjoy and seek out interaction. Visual barriers can also provide more timid residents rest from excitable, playful, or confrontational residents sharing the same living space.

    A graphic of a house with a baby blue roof and yellow wall with a pink heart surrounded in the same blue.

    Let’s break that last part down into list form! The provision of visual barriers allows residents more choice and autonomy by giving them the following:

    • The ability to remove themselves from the sight of visitors or stressful human activity
    • A quiet place for a nice nap
    • Avoidance of overly rambunctious or confrontational residents
    • Alone time for individuals who prefer it
    • A sense of safety from predators
    • In the case of overhead visual barriers, increased use of living space due to protection from predators
    • A more diverse and enriching living space
    • By providing pregnant residents the ability to perform natural behaviors in seeking solitude and safety before, during, and after giving birth (though careful observations should be made during this time and the resident separated when appropriate.)
    • Perhaps most importantly, visual barriers provide residents with choices.

    Close Observation Is Vital

    When providing visual barriers or hiding areas, caregivers must be on the lookout for any changes in the social group, especially for competition for hiding areas that may be prized. It is also important to remember that you should have eyes on every individual every day, so checking these less visible areas is important to ensure residents’ well-being. Noting whether residents use the barrier, how often, and if there is a pattern of when and who uses it can be helpful in making any necessary adjustments. Trying different types of barriers and hiding areas to see what is preferred is a great way to learn more about what your residents want.

    Types Of Visual Barriers

    There are many ways to provide visual barriers and hiding spots. What this looks like will depend greatly on the species, the group dynamics, space, and the individual. Let’s look at some examples of barriers.

    • A graphic of a white duck standing amongst green bushes on an orange background.
    • A graphic of a white, alert rabbit standing at the opening of a black play tunnel.
    • A graphic of a white hen and multicolored rooster stand on separate sides of three straw bales.
    • Straw bales
    • Brush
    • Trees
    • Tall grass/bushes
    • Shade screen
    • Plywood partitions
    • Three-sided structures
    • Large rocks
    • Sand or dirt mounds
    • Elevated furniture
    • Boxes, tubes/tunnels
    • Stumps
    • Individual resting boxes or houses

    Enough For Everyone!
    When providing visual barriers, it is absolutely essential that you pay attention to how residents interact with the barrier and each other after it is introduced. A single visual barrier is highly valued and can increase conflict if many residents want to use it. For this reason, adding multiple opportunities for residents to utilize visual barriers can be helpful. 

    We hope you find these bite-sized science resources helpful at your sanctuary. These resources provide sound scientific information that may have a practical application in sanctuaries. We hope you’ll stay tuned for more Science For Sanctuaries. If you haven’t yet, check out our resource exploring the research on lavender and horses. In the meantime, let us know if you have any experience with music for pig residents or other resident species. We love hearing from you and will do our best to answer any questions! Also, please contact us if you have any questions or concerns. It is important that we constantly improve our knowledge base with the most accurate, compassionate information possible.


    1. Case Study: Visual Barriers Reduce Pacing In Captive Tigers | Zoobiology (Non-Compassionate Source)
    2. Group Differences In Captive Gorillas’ Reaction To Large Crowds | Applied Animal Behaviour Science (Non-Compassionate Source)
    3. Enhancing Their Quality Of Life: Environmental Enrichment For Poultry | Poultry (Non-Compassionate Source)
    4. Effects Of The Provision Of A Hiding Box Or Shelf On The Behaviour And Faecal Glucocorticoid Metabolites Of Bold And Shy Cats Housed In Single Cages | Applied Animal Behaviour Science (Non-Compassionate Source)
    5. The Impact Of Providing Hiding Spaces To Farmed Animals: A Scoping Review  | Plos One (Non-Compassionate Source)
    6. Behavioral Diversity As A Potential Indicator Of Positive Animal Welfare | Animals (Non-Compassionate Source)
    7. Assessing the Importance of Natural Behavior for Animal Welfare | Journal Of Agricultural And Environmental Ethics (Non-Compassionate Source)
    8. The Natural Behavior Debate: Two Conceptions of Animal Welfare | Journey Of Applied Animal Welfare Science (Non-Compassionate Source)
    9. Risk Factors For Stereotypic Behaviour In Captive Ungulates | Proceedings Of The Royal Society Biological Sciences (Non-Compassionate Source)
    10. Pacing Stereotypies In Laboratory Rhesus Macaques: Implications For Animal Welfare And The Validity Of Neuroscientific Findings | Neuroscience And Biobehavioral Reviews (Non-Compassionate Source)
    11. Stereotypic Behaviour in the Stabled Horse: Causes, Effects and Prevention without Compromising Horse Welfare | The Welfare Of Horses (Non-Compassionate Source)
    12. Veterinary Participation In Large-scale Bird Rescue Operations | Julie Burge, DVM 
    13. Turkey Farming: Welfare And Husbandry Issues | African Journal Of Agricultural Research (Non-Compassionate Source)
    14. Comparing Different Environmental Enrichments For Improving The Welfare And Walking Ability Of Male Turkeys | Plos One (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Non-Compassionate Source?
    If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

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