Animal Welfare – Understanding the Needs of Amphibians

The penguins living at the Polk Penguin Conservation Center are not the only water-dependent species being studied by the Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare (CZAW). We are conducting research to uncover indicators of welfare in frogs, toads and salamanders living at the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center.

Welfare indicators in amphibian species have largely consisted of body condition scoring and measures of reproductive success, neither of which provide comprehensive understanding of how individual animals are faring. Identifying additional indicators can help us to better understand the needs of amphibians living in zoos.

Due to the catastrophic declines in amphibian populations around the world in recent years, amphibian conservation has become a priority for zoos and other conservation organizations. While many institutions prioritize the management of captive populations of amphibians as one strategy in the preservation of these species, virtually no literature exists today regarding how the captive representatives of rapidly vanishing amphibians are faring. The Detroit Zoological Society created the National Amphibian Conservation Center nearly two decades ago, and it is still the largest facility dedicated to amphibian conservation and care in the world. CZAW is now conducting studies to help understand the individual preferences and behavioral and physiological responses of these animals to captive environments and husbandry practices, as well as individual capacities for coping with stressors of captive environments.

Housing animals in multi-species habitats is a common practice in zoos and aquariums. Some amphibians however, such as poison dart frog species, may be housed together due to their shared environmental requirements and their conspicuous aesthetics. Little research has been conducted on the impact that mixed-species living has on the welfare of the individuals. At CZAW, we have examined how different species partition their habitat and how their behavior may be impacted by one another. This helps us ensure that the needs of each animal are being met.

While much emphasis has been placed on the impacts of captivity on the welfare of large mammals, little attention has been granted to large amphibians living in the care of humans. Japanese giant salamanders are currently listed as Near Threatened by the International Union of Conservation of Nature and their wild numbers are decreasing due to habitat loss and hunting.

These salamanders present a unique challenge when it comes to habitat design, given their potential to grow up to 1.5 meters in length and their nocturnal activity patterns. Traditional ways of housing amphibians may not be as successful for giant salamanders and in turn may impact their welfare. The Immersion Gallery at the amphibian center is being renovated as a new habitat for the Japanese giant salamanders, with the goal of giving the animals increased physical and social choices. We are also developing a project to assess the ways in which this increase in choice can improve the welfare of the individual salamanders.

As we continue to study how amphibians can thrive in zoos, we not only help the individuals, but we can also contribute to the efforts being made to conserve them. Greater understanding of how individual captive amphibians are faring is critical to ensuring their well-being and to meeting ethical obligations of keeping animals in captivity.

Stephanie Allard, Ph.D., is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

Sustainability and Conservation Go Hand-in-Hand

The Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) award-winning sustainability initiatives go hand-in-hand with our commitment to wildlife conservation – every step we take to reduce our carbon footprint serves to protect the habitats of animals around the globe.

Wildlife are facing great challenges – from climate change and habitat loss to poaching and the exotic animal trade – leaving many species threatened, endangered or teetering on the brink of extinction. Human impact on the Earth has, in many cases, led to these dire situations they are in. More than 40 percent of all amphibians are at risk. From snow leopards to snails and from penguins to polar bears, the DZS is actively involved in wildlife conservation efforts worldwide – in the last two years alone, we were engaged in projects on six continents.

We have the power to make a difference. That’s why our inaugural Wildlife Conservation Gala on Saturday, March 18, is themed “Making a Difference”. All of us can take steps in our own lives to help reverse the crisis many animals are facing. It is our hope that our community will be motivated to join us on our Green Journey and commit to a better future for all that share this magnificent planet.

Our award-winning Greenprint initiative is a strategic plan that guides our operations and all that we do toward a more sustainable future. Our efforts include discontinuing the sale of bottled water on Detroit Zoo grounds – previously the No. 1 seller at zoo concessions – keeping 60,000 plastic bottles out of the waste stream annually. We also no longer provide plastic bags at our gift shops or souvenir stands; visitors are encouraged to bring their own bags or purchase wildlife-themed reusable bags.

We built the first zoo-based anaerobic digester in the country, which will annually convert more than 400 tons of animal manure into methane-rich gas to power the Detroit Zoo’s animal hospital. We recently unveiled a new parking lot that uses a progressive green design, reducing storm water runoff and improving water quality by filtering pollutants. Additionally, our operations are powered with 100 percent renewable electricity from wind farms, thanks to the support of the ITC Holdings Corp.

Our goal is to inspire others to join us on our Green Journey as we continuously look for ways to reduce our ecological footprint. By downloading our Shades of Green guide, you’ll find a number of actions you can do at home, including:

  • Switch to a reusable water bottle and reduce the amount of unnecessary plastic pollution
  • Bring reusable bags with you to the grocery store
  • Turn off the lights when you leave a room
  • Recycle
  • Plant native species in your garden to create a natural habitat for pollinators such as bees and butterflies

Please also consider joining us on March 18. By supporting the Wildlife Conservation Gala, you’ll help to ensure the long-term survival of critically endangered amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and invertebrates that represent the diversity of life on our planet. For more information or to purchase tickets to this 21-and-older, black-tie-optional affair, visit https://detroitzoo.org/events/zoo-events/conservation-gala.

Veterinary Care: From Kitty Cats to Big Cats

Two years ago, I left everything that was familiar to me to take a position as a veterinary technician for the Detroit Zoological Society. For the previous 14 years, I’d been working at a small animal veterinary practice. I enjoyed this time spent taking care of dogs and cats, which often consisted of collecting blood, placing intravenous catheters, cleaning teeth, administering medication, taking X-rays, monitoring anesthesia and assisting the veterinarian in surgery. But the day had come that I decided to leave the small animal veterinary world and begin my journey in zoo medicine.

I thought these two worlds would be extremely different, but I quickly learned how similar they really are. I still do all of the same work, just on a larger variety of animals – not to mention some much larger in size. At times, there are unique challenges. For example, while I’ve had plenty of experience collecting blood from 10-pound cats who are not at all happy to be at the vet, blood collection from a 260-pound lion is a completely different ball game.

A major part of my job at the Detroit Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex is collecting blood for routine testing, which is an important part of preventative healthcare in both domestic animals and zoo animals. We analyze blood to evaluate organ function – especially kidney function in aging cats – electrolyte status, hormone levels and more. If an animal becomes ill, blood tests can help to identify the health issue so we can develop treatment plans. Routine blood testing is just as important on healthy animals because it gives us a good baseline for comparison if the animal becomes ill in the future.

I was soon faced with the challenge of collecting blood from a feline without holding her or even sharing the same space with her. Luckily for me, the animal care staff trains the animals for voluntary blood collection, making it possible for us to complete the task. Training a medical behavior like this is a gradual systematic process that happens before blood is even collected. It requires the zookeepers to have a lot of skill and patience.

In November of 2015, I had the pleasure of meeting Erin, a 16-year-old female African lion. She had begun her training for blood collection five years prior, and participates in the training willingly. When she does what is asked of her, she’s given treats and verbal praise, such as, “Good girl, Erin”. She can decide not to participate whenever she likes, but most days she seems to enjoy the challenge of doing each behavior.

When training for blood collection begins, animal care staff first teaches an animal to place herself in the front area of her indoor holding area and to lie down when given a verbal cue to do so. Next, the zookeeper uses a long, hooked pole to gently pull her tail through a small gap located at the bottom of the stall door. They then hold her tail still so that I can place a tourniquet on her tail. Lastly, I visualize and palpate Erin’s tail vein and insert the needle to collect the blood sample.

Erin practices training weekly and we collect blood from her every six to 12 months. This helps Erin remain comfortable with medical procedures such as blood collection, administering injections and applying topical medications, if needed. We are able to accomplish these things with Erin’s willing cooperation and the use of anesthesia is not necessary, which is safer and more enjoyable for everyone.

Similar to domestic cats, large cats often get kidney disease as they age, which can cause high blood pressure. Every two months, a blood pressure monitoring device is used to measure Erin’s blood pressure values. In this case, the zookeepers practice the same training used for blood collection, but when the zookeeper gains access to Erin’s tail and holds it still, l place a blood pressure cuff on it instead of a tourniquet. Her blood pressure is measured by the same method that is used in humans; two values are taken into account: systolic pressure and diastolic pressure. With the information gathered over time, we are better able to identify if a health problem is developing so we can begin treatment sooner.

I cannot tell you enough how incredible it is to be part of this veterinary team who, along with the animal care staff, provide excellent care for the animals residing at the Detroit Zoo.

– Stacey Baker is a veterinary technician for the Detroit Zoological Society and works at the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

Animal Welfare: A Brown Bear’s Journey

This month, we are celebrating the 20th birthday of Polly, a Syrian brown bear who was rescued and found sanctuary at the Detroit Zoo when she was young. She arrived in September of 2000 after spending the first three-and-a-half years of her life in deplorable conditions. Polly was born at a private breeder’s facility in Virginia in 1997. When she was 4 months old, she was sold to a roadside circus on the East Coast that already had a small menagerie of other animals. When she became too big to handle, Polly was relegated to a small cage with a large, hamster-like performance wheel where she rocked back and forth incessantly.

Several complaints from disturbed circus visitors concerned about the bear’s living conditions prompted PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) to try to secure her freedom. After months of negotiations, PETA was successful in convincing the circus owner to relinquish the bear. The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) accepted PETA’s request to provide a new home for Polly, providing her with the chance to finally experience an environment in which her welfare was of the utmost importance.

After all these years in a safe and stimulating environment, cared for by dedicated DZS staff members, Polly still demonstrates some of the unnatural, stereotypic behaviors she developed living in a small cage, despite being in an environment that is much larger and more suitably complex and stimulating. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see animals continue to demonstrate such behaviors even after they are removed from the conditions that caused the behaviors in the first place.  These “behavioral scars” are not a reflection of current conditions, but rather of past traumatic experiences that forever alter an animal’s behavior and life. DZS staff members monitor Polly closely, as they do all of the animals, and use positive reinforcement training and environmental enrichment, as well as allowing her to exercise as much choice and control over her environment as possible to provide her with a safe and comfortable home that meets her physical, behavioral and emotional needs.

Polly reminds us that animals which are forced to perform for human entertainment in circuses and other “shows”, are usually harmed in the process of their training or their living conditions, and often irreparably. All animals deserve to live in environments in which they can thrive, not just survive, and once they are scarred, they often can never be fully healed, despite the great care sanctuaries, like the Detroit Zoo, provide them.

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

Celebrating International Polar Bear Day

Polar bears are iconic animals, known for their incredible ability to survive in one of the harshest environments on Earth. These marine mammals are the most carnivorous member of the bear family, with a diet consisting primarily of seals. They have a thick layer of fat and waterproof fur, providing insulation in the cold Arctic climate in which they live.

Sea ice is imperative for polar bear survival; they spend the majority of their lives on the ice, relying on it to find a mate, build a den and hunt for seals. In the last 30 years, scientists have seen a dramatic shift in ice within the Arctic Ocean. The amount of “old ice” – ice that stays throughout the summer – is significantly smaller than what it was 30 years ago. The seasonal sea ice is forming later in the year – and melting earlier – directly impacting polar bears’ ability to hunt. As a result, many polar bears aren’t able to build up the fat reserves they need for the summer when food sources aren’t plentiful, and they starve to death.

We know the climate is changing. As humans, we are using fossil fuels such as coal and gas to drive cars and use electricity. These fossil fuels release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which builds up and creates a blanket effect around the Earth, trapping in heat that would otherwise escape. This trapped heat is causing global climate change and is impacting many species, including polar bears.

On February 26 and 27, the Detroit Zoo will join others around the world in highlighting the challenges that polar bears are facing in the wild. International Polar Bear Day celebrates these majestic creatures while also encouraging the community to not only better understand the impact we have on the environment, but to join us in taking positive action that will help protect vulnerable species.

Each one of us has the power to make a difference. We can change our daily behaviors and use less energy by seasonally adjusting our thermostats, riding our bikes, carpooling with friends or turning off the lights. We can also scale these actions up to our schools or workplaces by encouraging others to join us in this endeavor. Celebrating International Polar Bear Day is a great reason to start, or to take things to the next level.

Our International Polar Bear Day will take place on February 26 and 27 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The events will include zookeeper talks, educational activities and visits with the Zoo’s polar bear mascot. Talini and Nuka, the two polar bears who reside at the Zoo, will receive their usual treats at scheduled times (11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.) so guests can watch the bears enjoy them. This is not only a great time to visit the Zoo and the more than 2,000 animals living within our 125 acres, but it’s also a chance to learn more about how we can work together to save wildlife and wild places.

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

Wildlife Conservation: All Along the Water Tower

Peregrine falcons are a cliff-nesting species whose populations were significantly reduced in the 1950s as a result of environmental contamination by the pesticide DDT. This dangerous chemical accumulated in adult birds and caused thin-shelled eggs, which broke during incubation. The population declined rapidly and by the early 1960s, peregrine falcons were extinct in the eastern U. S.; the last known pair nested in Michigan in 1957. It was one of the first species listed by the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

An effort to reintroduce peregrine falcons into urban environments began in 1982 when chicks were released, or “hacked”, from buildings, bridges and other man-made structures in cities throughout the eastern U.S. Because they strictly hunt birds, peregrines find ample prey in cities with their abundance of pigeons, doves, starlings and other city-dwelling species. This successful reintroduction effort led to peregrines nesting in cities throughout the Midwest and a growing population not only in cities, but in much of their former natural range such as the cliffs along Lake Superior. The now wild peregrine population did so well that they were removed from the federal endangered species list in 1999.

Peregrines currently nest at a number of locations in southeast Michigan including in Warren, Pontiac, Southfield, Grosse Pointe and seven different sites in Detroit. They nest in other Michigan cities as well including Grand Rapids, Lansing and Jackson. Many of the chicks are banded with unique combinations that allow for individual identification when they mature and establish their own nests. Locally, the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) veterinary staff works with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in the banding effort by performing health assessments as bands are put on pre-fledged chicks.

This past summer, DZS staff and local birders noticed a pair of peregrines perching on the Detroit Zoo’s iconic water tower and hunting pigeons at the Zoo and in Royal Oak. While difficult to see, the male was identified as Justice, a bird hatched in 2012 at the Jackson County Tower Building with a band combination of black/red, 08/P. The female is not banded so we do not know her age or hatch location, but they are a well bonded pair that is still observed around the Zoo.

Often when a pair of peregrines establish a territory such as the water tower with plentiful prey nearby, they will end up nesting at that site. Peregrines lay their eggs on gravel or dirt with minimal nesting material. Because the water tower did not have a proper area for the birds to build a nest, DZS staff worked with the DNR to design and construct a nest box that will meet the needs of the nesting birds. The box was recently installed on the water tower, which was not an easy task. The box is on the southeast side to offer protection from the wind while exposed to ample sunshine. It is visible from the westbound service drive as you wait for the light at Woodward.

We are thrilled that peregrines have chosen the Detroit Zoo as a home along with other native birds, such as the turkey vultures, great blue herons, double-crested cormorants and even the occasional visiting bald eagle. We are optimistic that peregrines will join the species that also nest at the Zoo, which includes wood ducks, green herons and the highly visible breeding colony of black-crowned night herons, a species normally found in secluded wetlands.

– Tom Schneider is the curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Animal Welfare: Hormone Studies in the Endocrinology Lab

The Detroit Zoo’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare (CZAW) undertakes studies to find innovative and non-invasive means to evaluate how animals are faring. There are a variety of ways to do this, including looking at hormone levels, as they can reflect the internal state of an animal. Hormones control most major bodily functions, including complex systems such as emotional response. We are able to study the hormones of animals at the Detroit Zoo in our endocrinology lab; Dr. Grace Fuller, the Detroit Zoological Society’s manager of applied animal welfare science, is responsible for the work that is done here.

Oxytocin is a hormone that has the potential to tell us a lot about how animals are responding to their social environment. While commonly referenced for its role in a mother bonding with an offspring, oxytocin is involved in bonding in many social settings. It has been studied in a variety of species, including humans. One of the great things about this type of biological marker is that we can measure it in materials such as saliva and urine. This means we can obtain samples more easily, without impacting the animals in a potentially negative way, as might be the case if we had to restrain an animal to obtain a blood sample.

We have collected saliva and urine samples from the giraffes living at the Zoo to explore how social interactions might be having an effect on them. Dr. Fuller has validated (a process necessary to prove that we are indeed measuring what we think we are) our ability to detect levels of oxytocin in both types of samples, and is now looking at how levels correlate with different social situations, including changes to group composition and visitor interactions.

We look forward to sharing the results of this important work as we move forward.

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