Turn Your Backyard into a Wildlife Sanctuary

As spring finally arrives, our neighborhoods are quickly coming back to life after a long winter’s slumber. Each morning we wake up to birds singing outside our windows and wildlife stirring from their winter hideouts as they venture out in search of food and companionship. We have an important role in their success as we own and care for much of the space they call home.

Our yards are becoming increasingly important sanctuaries for native wildlife. With open spaces quickly dwindling to new subdivisions, commercial buildings and parking lots, there is little left for the species who have always lived here. By sharing our backyards with birds, pollinators, small mammals, amphibians and reptiles, we’re keeping the ecosystem intact and benefiting all species, including ourselves.

Birds, amphibians and bats all help keep the insect population in control, making our summer afternoons more enjoyable without constantly swatting away mosquitos and other winged nuisances. Pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, provide us with beautiful flowers and are responsible for fertilizing crops, ultimately producing one out of every three bites of food we eat. Snakes eat insects and small rodents, keeping populations in control and out of our sheds, garages and homes. To keep these natural systems in balance, we need to minimize our impact on their daily routines.

It’s relatively easy to create an oasis for wildlife while we continue to enjoy our outdoor space. Last spring, DZS staff planned and prepared a Backyards for Wildlife site near the Detroit Zoo’s American Coney Island to demonstrate how simple projects in our backyards can have a positive impact for wildlife. Volunteers from the Ford Motor Company helped to plant a variety of native flowers, grasses and shrubs in the area, and laid a wood chip path to lead guests into the space, which will soon be full of blooming flowers and busy pollinators.

In preparation for GreenFest on April 27, the site will be enhanced with signage that suggests simple things homeowners can do in their yards. These tips include:

Install rain barrels on downspouts. Collecting rain to irrigate lawns and gardens can save homeowners as much as $35 a month on summer water bills.

Keep your cat indoors to save songbirds. Wildlife biologists estimate that as many as one in every 10 songbirds are killed by domestic cats. Keeping cats indoors may also prevent the spread of many feline illnesses.

Install a bat house. Before you call an exterminator to spray for unwanted mosquitos, consider installing a bat house. A bat can eat up to a thousand mosquitos in a single evening!

Build a birdhouse. A birdhouse can be a fun project to build and paint with children. It will provide a safe shelter for birds raising their young.

Incorporate native plants in your landscape. Native plants require less water and care than introduced species, they come back year-after-year and are important food sources for birds, butterflies and other pollinators. Even if you live in an apartment and only have a balcony, a potted plant or small window box can provide many of these same benefits to native wildlife. For suggestions on where to buy native plants, visit https://detroitzoo.org/who/ and select the “Certify Your Habitat” dropdown.

Our Backyards for Wildlife site is a place for learning and enjoyment for humans, and a great example of how our personal choices can make a positive difference for our non-human neighbors. Join us at GreenFest on April 27, to learn more as we celebrate Earth Day with demonstrations from our Green Team, conservation education, citizen science projects and exhibits by local conservation groups.

– Claire Lannoye-Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Toss Out Your Old Spring-Cleaning Routine and Bring in the Green

The grass may always be greener, but you can be too! As you begin your annual spring-cleaning routine, consider making some changes that will impact the environment in a positive way. Some simple modifications will help keep your home fresh and clutter-free while also creating a sustainable future for people and animals. From choosing the right cleaning products to watching your water usage, here are some helpful tips you can adopt to clean the green way:

Purchase environmentally friendly cleaning products. Popular cleaning products often contain chemicals that are harmful to you and the environment. Next time you purchase your spring-cleaning necessities, double check the ingredients for harsh chemicals, including phthalates or triclosan, which can poison our bodies and our aquatic ecosystems. Phthalates can cause disruptions in our endocrine system while triclosan is an antibacterial that kills algae in more than half of the streams in the U.S. Instead, look for eco-friendly, plant-based products. They offer the same cleaning benefits with less risk to our health and the Earth’s water.

Make your own cleaning products. Save money and the environment by creating homemade soaps and disinfectants – it’s easier than you might think. There are many simple recipes you can follow to clean your bathrooms, floors, counters and cabinets. Try substituting chemical-filled cleansers with white vinegar or baking soda and water. Adding a couple drops of essential oil to your natural concoctions produces a great scent and has cleaning benefits of its own. Tea tree oil is a natural disinfectant; peppermint and lemon also have natural and powerful cleaning agents and they will leave your home smelling fresh.

Declutter clothing and household items the right way. Channel your inner Marie Kondo while sorting through old clothes and instead of throwing these items away, toss them into the hands of someone who might find your trash as their treasure! You can gather your items and have a garage sale or donate them to charity. This eliminates waste in our landfills and you could earn some extra cash. But if you do decide to toss some items, there are environmentally friendly ways to do so. Recycle or reuse what you can to try to eliminate as much waste as possible.

Watch your water usage. We can accidentally waste a lot of water by leaving the faucet on longer than is necessary. By being conscious of this, we can help preserve this important resource. When cleaning areas of your house, a bucket full of water works to rinse out the mop or rag and uses far less water than taking it to the tub. These few changes can help you not only save water, but also your hard-earned dollars!

Purify the air with houseplants. Not only are plants beautiful décor, they can also purify the air and provide health benefits to those who reside in the home. Houseplants reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in our homes while also keeping air temperatures down. They even eliminate dust levels, making spring-cleaning a little easier! Having plants around us creates a sense of comfort and lowers stress levels, too.

Together, we can make small changes to our yearly spring-cleaning routine that can make a huge difference in our lives and the lives of Earth’s wonderful creatures. By incorporating these few tips and tricks, we can take another step forward on our Green Journey and help create eco-friendly communities. Spring is in the air, but harmful chemicals don’t have to be.

Detroit Zoological Society’s Online Resource Center Expands Knowledge of Animal Welfare and Ethics

When the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) created the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE), one of the main goals was to increase the knowledge about the welfare of animals living in the care of humans. We developed an online resource center, which is regularly updated, to ensure as much information about animal welfare and ethics can be easily found. Dr. Matt Heintz, an animal welfare research associate for the DZS, stays up to date on newly published articles and is responsible for growing this incredible resource.

The database now contains more than 7,000 references, with some dating back as far as 1932. It represents a broad range of topics as the expansive field of animal welfare continues to grow. Users can search for specific topics, species and authors. Each entry includes a summary of the publication and a link to where the full article can be found. Some are made freely available to anyone by the journal publishers, while others may require a fee or access through subscriptions. The CZAAWE online resource center and the searches that can be performed are entirely free, as access to knowledge is important in our collective efforts to better understand animal welfare and ethics. This database has proven to be a valuable resource and in just the last four years, it has been accessed more than ten thousand times by people in 102 countries.

Dr. Heintz analyzed the database to look for trends in the literature and to help identify gaps in the knowledge currently available. Although a wide breadth of welfare topics are represented, much of the published literature is focused on mammalian species. This tells us that more research needs to center on amphibians, birds, fish, invertebrates and reptiles. He also found a fun way to visually represent the trends using a word cloud image. The terms that are more commonly found in the references are shown in a larger font.

The goal of increasing knowledge about animal welfare and ethics is an important one and we will continue to dedicate ourselves to increasing the usefulness and accessibility of this resource. If you want to learn more about animal welfare and ethics, we encourage you to check out the online resource center, which can be found at www.czaw.org/resources. The more we know, the more we can contribute to promoting great animal welfare.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics.

Detroit Zoological Society Spreads Cheer at Local Hospitals

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has provided regular programming for children at local hospitals for a number of years. The monthly, hands-on activities provide a welcome distraction from short or long hospital stays as young patients receive treatment at both Beaumont Children’s Hospital in Royal Oak and Detroit Medical Center Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. With a goal of reaching as many pediatric patients as possible, and thanks to generous donations from DZS guests, staff and volunteers, we are sharing a new experience with these children that is filling hospital activity rooms with smiling faces.

This interactive experience allows them to step into the role of a veterinarian or wildlife conservationist. As children enter the room, they have the opportunity to choose and “adopt” a plush animal. They take the animal through a series of health check-ups, including weighing, measuring, food preparation and X-ray review, carefully charting the information they collect. At the end of the examination, the child is able to keep the plush animal as a forever friend.

 

The stations are intentionally designed to be flexible and meet the diverse needs of each child. If a patient does not want to or is unable to move from station to station, the activities can be easily brought to them. The experience can be shortened or lengthened depending on the interest and stamina of each child. The activities can also be made more challenging for older children or simplified for younger patients.

The process of completing the animals’ health check-ups provides an opportunity for hospital staff to communicate with patients about their own treatment. Physical therapy and patient aide staff are also able to take advantage of these activities to help patients move from station to station.

The plush animals have been available for purchase at a discounted price in the Detroit Zoo’s gift shop, Zoofari Market, since 2014. The philanthropic idea was the brainchild of employees of Service Systems Associates, which operates the Zoo’s concessions and retail services.

Our pediatric hospital programs are creating memorable moments for children during their hospital stays, which can be a difficult time for many. Because of those who have so generously donated to this program, we are able to make a real difference in their lives.

– Carla Van Kampen is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field: Scientists Set Sail on Seabird Study

This is Part II of a series about a recent conservation expedition to the Falkland Islands by the Detroit Zoological Society to understand the threats facing populations of wild penguins and seabirds. For Part I, click here.

Conducting scientific research in the Falkland Islands can be logistically challenging. Located 300 miles to the east off the southern tip of South America, this remote territory consists of two main islands and several hundred smaller islands dotting the South Atlantic. Some of these islands have rocky cliffs at the ocean’s edge. Others are completely inaccessible.

With this said, the Falkland Islands provide critical habitats for several species of penguins, seabirds and other wildlife, and such fieldwork is necessary to preserve these populations and understand the risks they face. Threats are looming from oil extraction and increasing ecotourism in the area.

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) was asked by a partner organization called Falklands Conservation to develop a project that would explore the impacts of infectious disease, pollution and tourism on these populations. After months of preparation, a DZS veterinary team embarked on the mission.

Traveling to the Falklands from Detroit is a 50-hour journey. First, you fly to Atlanta and then to Santiago, Chile. The next day, you fly to Punta Arenas, Chile and then continue on to Stanley, the largest city in the Falklands. Stanley has a population of roughly 2,000 people, and about 900 people live elsewhere in the islands. By comparison, there are approximately 450,000 sheep spread over the islands, which amounts to more than 150 sheep per human. There is also an estimated 800 miles of coastline in the Falklands, which is home to four species of penguins and numerous other seabirds.

The DZS’s goal was to take blood and feather samples from penguins living in different locations within the Falkland Islands. Some had experienced the presence of humans, industrial shipping and oil activity and others were far removed from these potential impacts. The team also set out to examine two penguin species, one that tends to forage closer to land and one that travels far out to sea.

The research team’s home base for the expedition was a 55-foot sailboat. Each morning, the team would pack supplies into backpacks, get dropped off on an island and hike to various penguin colonies to collect the samples over an eight-hour period. One day, the team was set up on a beach near a gentoo colony and the next was spent on rocky cliff near a rockhopper colony.

Each penguin was handled for less than 10 minutes, during which time the team conducted a physical exam, took swabs to test for viruses and bacteria, collected blood and used scissors to trim a few feathers for toxicology testing. Afterward, each of the penguins went right back to their colonies and continued their regular activities of grooming and socializing.

In the evenings, our researchers took over every surface of the boat and spent three or four hours centrifuging the blood, making slides and getting samples ready for storage in liquid nitrogen tanks for preservation until our return to Michigan.

In all, the team examined 95 penguins. Our hope is that we can better understand the current health status of these penguins as well as the impacts disease and exposure to environmental toxins and humans may have on wildlife. Ultimately, measures could be taken in this region to ensure important marine habitats – and the wildlife who rely on them – are protected.

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Foster Empathy While Spending Time Indoors

The days may be shorter, the weather colder, and our lives might be spent mostly indoors during this time of the year, but it can still be a valuable, educational time for families. There are a number of activities we can do with our children to follow and support the Detroit Zoological Society’s humane education goals of fostering empathy for others and developing respect for wildlife and wild places.

Empathy is the ability to understand another person or animal’s experience from their perspective. It’s being able to place yourself in some else’s shoes/paws and mirror what they are feeling which, in turn, is known to increase positive social behaviors. While it can be innate for some of us, empathy is actually a learned behavior.

One way to help nurture empathy in children is through stories, which can help them process thoughts and information. Stories allow us to put on different hats, try out new experiences, think through future actions and develop our moral compass – all of which can be done from the comfort of our own home.

We do this in a number of our humane education programs offered by the Detroit Zoological Society. We share experiences of people helping animals and books that enable us to explore the world around us from an animal’s perspective. Even after a story has been read, there’s still an opportunity to continue building empathy by taking action.

For example, you could read “Stranger in the Woods”, a beautiful picture book about local wildlife, and then build a wildlife-friendly snowperson by incorporating decorations that can feed animals. Examples include a carrot nose, potato eyes, a birdseed scarf, etc.

After reading “How to Heal a Broken Wing”, a book about helping an injured bird who flew into a window, you could make window decals to prevent bird collisions. You could also learn how to humanely deter ants from your home after reading “Hey Little Ant”, a book that sheds light on an ant’s perspective. Fostering empathy in children can start at a young age. Together, we can help instill values of walking softly and treating the Earth’s creatures gently.

– Carla Van Kampen is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Celebrate your Sweetie Sustainably this Valentine’s Day

While Valentine’s Day is usually a sea of pink and red, let’s add some green to our celebrations this year. Date nights and gifts that show your significant other how much you care can easily include a little love shown to the Earth as well. Options abound for eco-friendly ways to revel in the romance.

Date Night. Embrace the weather and spend time in nature by bundling up and heading outside. Go skiing, ice skating, find a local winter festival, or head to the Detroit Zoo with your significant otter for a Valentine’s Day date.

Cook at home. Some restaurants require reservations weeks in advance. Instead of hitting the town, cook dinner together at home using locally sourced food. It’s a fun activity that’s more intimate than being surrounded by other couples; plus, it will save you money. Finding fresh ingredients can be challenging during Michigan winters, but a trip to your local farmers’ market could produce everything you need. Many vegetables are ripe this time of year in their extended season, including onions, potatoes and carrots – learn more about what grows when in this handy guide. Get creative in the kitchen by finding recipes incorporating these in-season foods. And don’t forget about maple syrup! It’s a delicious staple of Michigan’s agriculture industry and can be tapped as early as February. This can make for a delicious breakfast in bed for your partner.

Gifts for your sweetie and the environment. This year, consider giving your loved one something a little more environmentally friendly. Jewelry and perfume can be expensive – and toxic. Instead, choose a gift that shows your love for both your partner and the Earth. Here are some ideas:

  • A potted plant or flower seeds for those with a green thumb
  • An indoor herb garden to spice things up for those who love to cook
  • A sustainably sourced bouquet of flowers – either from a local grower and/or one that uses green methods of growth and production
  • Reusable snack bags and travel cups for those always on the go
  • A “date night jar” with ideas for outings to pick at random throughout the year
  • Fair trade candy and chocolate

Skip the pricey wrapping paper – instead, reduce, reuse and recycle! Reduce the cost of wrapping paper by purchasing reusable gift bags. Reuse your cookie tins and jars to present a gift instead of cardboard boxes. Recycle old newspapers and magazines as a sustainable alternative to fancy paper. And for this category, let’s add another “R” – romance. A hand-written card can be more sentimental than a store-bought greeting card.

Crafts for children. Children’s arts and crafts can be good for the environment too. Skip the messy glitter and make a heart-shaped bird feeder! It’s a fun craft to do together while fostering respect for wildlife and providing food for birds. Other options for home-made gifts for the young people in your life rather than pricey presents include friendship bracelets made out of colorful yarn or snow globes made out of recycled baby food containers.

There are countless creative ways we can demonstrate our devotion to each other and to the Earth on Valentine’s Day. Love is in the air, so let’s keep the air clean and safe for all of us who share this planet.