Learn About the Wolf-Moose Project on Isle Royal

The Detroit Zoological Society’s top-notch education staff are always hard at work creating original lessons and content for students and families in metro Detroit and beyond. DZS educational offerings teach students to have empathy for wildlife while providing science, technology, engineering and math experiences – particularly for students who are underrepresented in or lack equal access to high-quality STEM learning. In one highly-popular six-part DZS offering, students practice science from the perspective of professional conservationists researching moose and wolves on Isle Royale.

Isle Royale is part of an archipelago in Lake Superior, an island ecosystem that supports plant and animal life through harsh winters and mild summers. It is also home to the longest-running research project dedicated to a predator-prey relationship in the world. Called the Wolf-Moose Project, the study has documented and analyzed the moose and wolf populations living on the island since 1958, investigating the complex and dynamic relationships between predators and prey while considering humans’ role in the changing ecosystem. 

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) supports the work on Isle Royale financially and by sending staff to participate in this study through an annual Moosewatch expedition.  DZS-led Moosewatch teams spend just over a week hiking throughout the island to look for Moose that have passed away. If they find one, they will collect specific bones for the study. Analyzing the bones can provide insight into how the moose died – whether from old age, disease, lack of food or predation from wolves. This information is critical to understanding the health of the ecosystem. 

To bring this powerful story to life for school-age youth, DZS educators created a six-module course for middle and high school students. The on-demand, online learning experience addresses science, literacy and math standards through an interrupted case-study model. In this framework, course participants take on the role of a wildlife biologist who has been tasked with examining data, historical information and other evidence to make an assessment of the health of the island ecosystem. 

Photo taken by Jennifer Harte of Renner at the Detroit Zoo.

Drawing on this information, participants make a recommendation to either continue relocating wolves from the mainland to the islands, in an attempt to slow the rapidly growing moose population, or to let the current populations remain as they are, allowing nature to take its course. The experience is designed to help participants consider the perspectives of several key stakeholders, including conservationists, research scientists and the animals themselves. 

After submitting a recommendation for wolf population management, participants can schedule a time to meet with a Detroit Zoological Society staff member, who can answer questions, provide information about the wolves who live at the Detroit Zoo, and share stories about our conservation work. Several staff have participated in the annual Moosewatch program on Isle Royale and can provide first-hand accounts of the island. There is a charge for this virtual meeting with DZS staff, but the rest of the course is free. 

Gray wolves and humans have a long and complicated relationship. Wolves have been portrayed as villains, both in the media and literature, for generations. The reality is that all animals have an important role in their respective ecosystems, and it is our responsibility to find ways to coexist peacefully. The study on Isle Royale has provided a tremendous amount of information that has challenged our knowledge of predator and prey relationships, and how dynamic they are. This course provides an opportunity for students to learn about these relationships on Isle Royale by making use of real data and experiences – and while building critical skills they will need as our future leaders and decision makers.

Launch the course.

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


Amphibian Breeding Season

Spring is the time of year when most amphibians in the wild are emerging from hibernation, breeding, and eventually laying eggs. This pattern also holds true for the animals at the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center (NACC). Every year in the early months of spring, the top-notch staff at the NACC facilitate hibernation, breeding and rearing for endangered amphibians from all over the world with the intention of releasing them into their respective habitats in the wild. A few of these species include Wyoming toads (Bufo baxteri), striped newts (Notophalmus perstriatus) and Puerto Rican crested toads (Peltophryne lemur). Amphibians are highly sensitive creatures who rely on the environmental conditions of their native habitats to cue their natural cycles of breeding and to maintain their overall health.  The NACC staff are experts at recreating these environmental cues.

Facilitating breeding in Wyoming toads, for example, is a complex process involving temperature changes and natural material for burrowing. The amphibian staff use a refrigerator to replicate the natural winter cool down experienced by these critically endangered creatures, and to ease them into a state of lowered activity and metabolism. The amphibians are also provided with a special mix of substrate to burrow into during this period – very similar to how Wyoming toads in the wild burrow below the frost line during the cold months.  When they warm up after this simulated winter, the toads at the NACC are ready to breed and are paired up with mates according to the recommendations of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP) for Wyoming toads. An SSP is a cooperative breeding program that is overseen by AZA-accredited institutions that breed and house animal species who are endangered or threatened.

Another example of the specialized care required to breed the unique animals at the NACC is found in the reproduction patterns of striped newts. Endemic to the long leaf pine forests of Georgia and Florida, these amphibians are known to congregate and breed in temporary pools during specific times of the year when the water levels are highest.  In order to mimic these events for the striped newts at the NACC, their habitats’ water levels are lowered for a period of time – before being raised dramatically. The natural breeding cues of the striped newts are also replicated in other ways, such as changing their “photo period,” or daylight/nighttime hours, in order to simulate different seasons.  Inside the animals’ habitats, the zookeepers also place specific aquatic vegetation that the newts have been known to prefer as sites for laying eggs.

            Puerto Rican crested toads are among the many amphibians who are known to begin breeding activities during periods of heavy and sustained rainfall. Existing only in several small isolated populations within Puerto Rico, these toads emerge from hiding during seasonal rains to find a mate and reproduce.  Making use of this knowledge, the intuitive keepers at the NACC have produced a “love song mixtape” which includes the calls of male crested toads as well as the sound of heavy rainfall. While this track may not win any Grammy Awards, it serves to stimulate the crested toads into amplexus, which is an embrace used by male toads to hold onto the female and fertilize her eggs.

After countless hours of logging temperatures, researching literature and testing water quality, the real reward comes for the staff at the NACC when these fragile and endangered animals are released into the wild having received a head start towards a brighter future. This year, in the month of June, the amphibian department at the Detroit Zoo released 3,393 Puerto Rican Crested Toads, 634 Wyoming Toads and 41 Striped Newts into native habitats ranging from the dry forests of the Caribbean Islands to the plains of Wyoming. The amphibian staff take great pride in having contributed to the conservation of some of the most important animals on the planet as well as in furthering the mission of Detroit Zoological Society.

– Mark Vassallo is an amphibian department supervisor for the Detroit Zoological Society

What a Lizard Wants

When you walk into the Holden Reptile Conservation Center, directly on your left is a lush habitat full of vibrant plants and the sound of a trickling waterfall. As you walk to the other side of the habitat, you may see a roughly six-foot-long lizard floating in the pool, or he may be stretched out, soaking up the rays from a heat lamp. This is Solair.

Solair is an 11.5-year-old water monitor (Varanus salvator). He arrived at the Detroit Zoo in early 2015 after his previous facility could no longer care for him. Although Solair may be considered a senior for his species, you would never know it! He is a charismatic individual who enjoys interacting with his care staff and exploring his habitat to find the tasty fish they leave for him.

Figure 1: Solair, an 11.5-year-old water monitor, resting in the pool of his new habitat, completed in April 2021.

Solair’s current habitat was completed in April 2021 with the generous support of individual donors and a grant by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. The habitat is more than 900 square feet, which is almost five times its original size! A major feature is the 7,000-gallon pool with a waterfall. His basking lamp shines in a cave with a heated floor, and two other heated rocks can be adjusted to keep him comfortable throughout the year. Natural light shines through the front windows and skylights, allowing live plants to thrive and creating a tranquil atmosphere. The only piece of the habitat that remains the same from before the renovation is Solair’s favorite log that he likes to climb and where he occasionally sleeps.

Figure 2: Solair is looking out from one of the logs surrounded by plants and natural sunlight.

Major habitat modifications like this come with many considerations. How do we know that Solair likes the changes we made? How do these changes affect his welfare? The Association of Zoos and Aquariums defines animal welfare as an animal’s collective physical, mental and emotional states over a period of time, and it is measured on a continuum from good to poor. To monitor how habitat modifications affect an individuals’ welfare, we perform a post-occupancy evaluation. This evaluation looks at how an animal used their previous space compared to their new habitat.

For a post-occupancy evaluation, we may look at a variety of animal welfare indicators, such as investigation and species-appropriate behaviors. When animals spend time investigating their habitats above the amount required to find food and shelter, it is interpreted as enjoyable and self-rewarding. Due to the energy needed and risks that could arise from investigating in the wild, this behavior can also signify that an animal feels comfortable in their habitat. From his first introduction to his new habitat, Solair appeared very comfortable. He almost doubled his time investigating compared to his previous habitat as he checked out every nook and cranny of his new home. As a water monitor, this included particular attention to exploring every inch of his spacious pool.

Species-appropriate behaviors, like water-based behaviors for water monitors, are considered during all habitat modifications. We want to provide spaces that allow animals to behave as similarly to their wild counterparts as possible. Water monitors have a fascinating repertoire of behaviors seen in the wild. They are usually found by the water and can swim long distances if needed. Water monitors create burrows in the banks of rivers, carving out a chamber with shallow water where they sleep. They have powerful legs that help them chase down prey across land or in the water. Solair’s new habitat has given him the space to spend more time digging, swimming and floating. Solair also has spent more time on land moving between different habitat features, which helps him build muscle and maintain a healthy weight.

Changes in specific behaviors provide hints about overall welfare, but we also try to look at more comprehensive welfare indicators, including behavioral diversity and the spread of participation index (SPI). Behavioral diversity measures the number and frequency of behaviors displayed by an animal. In general, higher behavioral diversity is considered a positive welfare indicator, suggesting an animal has the resources and comfort to perform a variety of behaviors. When Solair was introduced to his new habitat, his behavioral diversity increased partly due to the new behaviors the habitat allowed him to perform.

The SPI has been gaining interest as a welfare indicator, and it assesses how evenly an individual uses the space provided, providing information on how different areas of the habitat meet individual needs. Typical SPI values vary from species to species. For example, grizzly bears generally move more than most snakes. However, suppose an individual never moves from one spot. In that case, the habitat may not provide the resources that the individual needs or the comfort to use the resources provided. Solair uses his current habitat more evenly than his previous one. However, he still has favorite locations, as seen in the heat map of his location use. The pool and his heated cave are two of the places where he spends the most time.

Figure 3: A heat map of Solair’s space use. This map shows the Holden Reptile Conservation center entrance on the right side and the exit on the left side. Areas in blue and green are less used, whereas areas in yellow and red are highly favored.

Solair’s new habitat has many positive features for him and Zoo guests, including ample options for people watching. Frequent visitors know that Solair occasionally will engage with small children and will often watch guests throughout the day. There were also many neutral and mildly positive relationships between the amount of time a crowd was in front of Solair’s habitat and his use of space and behavioral diversity. However, we have noticed one drawback: with the increased glass in the new habitat, guests are tapping on the glass more frequently. Unfortunately, there were decreases in Solair’s welfare indicators on days when guests engaged in more glass tapping. Part of the scientific process is to notice trends in the data and begin asking new questions, revealing new study ideas. The Detroit Zoological Society will continue to do this with the aim of providing the animals we care for with the best lives possible. However, we also ask our guests and wildlife lovers everywhere to remember that you play a part in the welfare of animals at the Zoo, other organizations and in the wild.

Overall, Solair has adjusted well to his new habitat and seems to enjoy all of the new features provided. We hope next time you visit the Zoo, you will make sure to stop by and say hi to Solair in his new habitat. Just remember he prefers a friendly wave over a tap on the glass.

Jennifer Hamilton is animal welfare programs coordinator for the Detroit Zoological Society

Polar Bear Cub Development and Welfare: A Team Effort from the Detroit Zoo

This photo of Suka and Astra was taken by Dr. Kylen N. Gartland.

What’s more exciting than a polar bear cub? Two polar bear cubs! The birth of any animal here at the Detroit Zoo is exciting, but polar bears offer special cause for celebration. The Detroit Zoo is proudly home to the Arctic Ring of Life – one of North America’s largest state-of-the-art polar bear habitats. These rambunctious new cubs will grow up exploring the more than 4 acres of outdoor and indoor habitats and are the latest polar bears to call the Detroit Zoo home.

Astra and Laerke were born to mom, Suka, and dad, Nuka, on November 17, 2020. Staff from all over the Zoo watched specially equipped cameras in Suka’s maternity den with bated breath, waiting for the arrival of little Astra and Laerke. Once the cubs made their appearance, it was all hands on deck. Even with expert care, polar bear cubs have a high mortality rate in captivity. With this in mind, the question at the forefront of everyone’s mind was a relatively straightforward one – how do we give these cubs the best shot at long, happy and healthy lives?

Newborn polar bears are blind, thinly haired and weigh only around one pound. Despite being born between November and December, mothers and newborn cubs usually remain in the maternal den until late March or even early April. What happens in those five months is largely unknown. There has been very little long-term monitoring on polar bear cubs due to obstacles such as camera placement and staffing availability, which make observing activity in the maternal den challenging. With the combined efforts of team members with diverse skills and backgrounds, the Detroit Zoological Society has undertaken to monitor and report on the growth and development of Astra and Laerke through their first full year of life. With this project, Detroit Zoological Society staff hope not only to ensure that Astra and Laerke thrive, but also to provide a crucial resource for other zoological institutions around the world endeavoring to rear polar bear cubs.

This photo of Laerke was taken by Dr. Kylen N. Gartland.

In order to pursue this goal, the Detroit Zoological Society staff needed to come up with a plan that would grow and change alongside Astra and Laerke. Additionally, we needed to be able to monitor the well-being of the cubs from multiple perspectives, both physical and emotional. Phase One of this project has been championed largely by the Arctic Ring of Life staff, mammal curators, veterinarians and the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE). Just a few days after birth, Laerke appeared to need extra support. After careful consideration, we made the difficult decision to remove Laerke from Suka’s care and continue rearing her in the veterinary hospital. With staff never more than a radio call away, Laerke spent her first few months growing and thriving in a behind-the-scenes nursery before transitioning to her own living space at the Arctic Ring of Life. During this time, we were able to weigh Laerke, measure her, and monitor milestones in her growth. It is important to establish normal developmental ranges so that veterinary staff can assess the health and well-being of the animals under their care. Data gathered by tracking Laerke’s growth spurts and noting her key developmental milestones will go a long way towards understanding the needs of baby polar bears. Meanwhile, using cameras in the behind-the-scenes maternal den, we were able to observe Suka and Astra 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. While the presence of cameras in zoological settings is not unusual, prolonged 24/7 monitoring certainly is! Detroit Zoological Society staff came together to share this monumental task for a full 12 weeks. Animal care staff watched more than 2,000 hours of recorded video (120,960 minutes!) and gathered invaluable data on mother-cub denning behavior.

With hundreds of hours of video data, scientists from CZAAWE offered to help with data analysis, freeing up animal care staff to focus on the growing needs of the cubs. Using this valuable dataset, we have been able to answer questions critical to early polar bear development. How frequently does a baby polar bear nurse? When does a baby polar bear leave the nest for the first time? What does maternal behavior look like for a polar bear? With recent transitions to live observations, we have been able to watch as the cubs become increasingly confident and exploratory. We continue to work together to provide peak care and ensure excellent welfare for Astra and Laerke as they approach their eighth month. We look forward to keeping you updated on their progress!


– Dr. Kylen N. Gartland is manager of applied animal welfare science for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Studying Animal Responses to the Pandemic Zoo Closure—One Year Later

This photo of red panda Scarlet was taken by Jennifer Harte.

The early days of the Covid-19 pandemic were an unprecedented time at the Detroit Zoo. When the Zoo closed as part of a statewide lockdown in March 2020, the absence of visitors was palpable. Walking the grounds in the budding spring weather, it was eerily quiet, the usual sounds of school groups and families replaced by birdsong and the hum of traffic outside the Zoo. The Zoo is usually open to guests 362 days of the year, and we realized that this sudden quietus was an opportunity. We had a chance to understand how animals experienced life at the Zoo in the absence of visitors—not just for a night or a holiday but, potentially, for months.

Being around human visitors is a defining feature of life for animals in zoos and aquariums. For this reason, visitor effects are an important topic in the study of animal welfare, which is the science investigating the physical, behavioral, and mental lives of animals to understand how they are faring overall. Animal welfare scientists try to understand life from the animals’ perspective. In this case, we wondered, what did the animals think when the crowds suddenly disappeared? Some people might assume that animals enjoy people watching, while others might suspect that visitors can be an annoyance. The scientific literature on visitor effects supports both ideas. Studies show that visitors can have a positive, neutral, or sometimes negative effect on animals living in zoos and aquariums. How would the residents of the Detroit Zoo respond?

Researchers at the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE) asked this question by collecting data on the behavior, use of space, and (in some cases) hormone levels of animals across the Zoo. For most projects, we collected data for about a month while the Zoo was closed and for another month after reopening. We monitored red pandas, southern white rhinoceroses, trumpeter swans, red kangaroos, red-necked wallabies, Catalina Island rattlesnakes, European glass lizards, beaded lizards, Arrau turtles, dwarf caimans, and a spiny-tailed iguana. We quickly realized that one challenge of this research was that the animals were very attentive to the sudden change in visitor patterns. They were alert to our activities, so we put our binoculars to good use, conducting our observations from a distance and hoping not to influence the behaviors we were recording.

The results of our research were as diverse as the creatures we studied. The iguana used more of his habitat when the Zoo was open, and both rattlesnakes were more active when the Zoo was open as well. However, the glass lizards spent more time hiding after the Zoo reopened. They were also more likely to be not visible when visitors were tapping on the glass of their enclosures, demonstrating an important point. Actions taken to get a response from animals might seem innocent, but imagine if someone was pounding on the door to your house all day—you might hide too. It shows that we all have a collective responsibility for the welfare of animals at the Zoo.

Although we saw differences in behavior with the Zoo open and closed, it was often unclear whether those changes represented a difference in overall welfare. The red kangaroos were an interesting example. We chose to study them because their walk-through habitat can potentially put guests in proximity to them. We found that in response to visitor presence, the kangaroos changed their schedule so they utilized the area around the visitor path more frequently in the morning, before visitors reached their habitat. However, there were no signs that this change impacted their overall well-being. Of course, by the time the Zoo reopened, we were transitioning from spring to summer, so we cannot rule out the possibility that warmer temperatures played a role in these trends. This example shows the complexity of studying human-animal relationships in the Zoo, as the effects of visitors can be difficult to isolate from other seasonal or environmental changes. A year later, we are still combing through the piles of data we collected during the statewide lockdown. Our results have shown many behavioral differences when the Zoo was closed versus open, but most of the effects were quite subtle. It is possible that the return of visitors at lower than normal capacities might have affected the results. The Zoo’s welfare-focused habitat designs, which give animals choices about whether or not to be seen and where to spend their time, may also make animals feel comfortable in their living spaces whether or not visitors are present. Using science, we can continue to investigate these important questions as part of a comprehensive approach to ensuring animals at the Detroit Zoo thrive.

– Dr. Grace Fuller is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Detroit Zoological Society Honored with International Sustainability Award

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has been recognized by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) as the recipient of the 2020 Environmental Sustainability Award. The DZS is the first zoo or aquarium to receive environmental sustainability top honors from both WAZA and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (2015).

“We are so appreciative of this wonderful recognition by our peers,” said Ron Kagan, executive director and CEO for the Detroit Zoological Society. “The entire organization has committed to this journey toward environmental sustainability.”

The Greenprint Program is at the heart of the DZS’s efforts; it’s a sustainability roadmap that invites organizations and individuals to actively help the planet we all share. 

“The DZS strives to be a green leader and uses Greenprint to refine and improve facilities, business practices and educational initiatives,” said Rachel Handbury, manager of sustainability for the Detroit Zoological Society. 

The discontinuation of single-use water bottle sales at the Detroit Zoo in 2015 is just one of the many major sustainability initiatives led by the Detroit Zoological Society. This effort has kept more than 60,000 plastic bottles out of the waste stream annually. 

To further reduce waste, the DZS built an anaerobic digester in 2016 to compost 1 million pounds of manure and food waste annually. Every year, the digester allows the organization to divert over 500 tons of animal manure, bedding and food waste away from landfills, instead creating nutrient-rich compost and renewable energy. 

While the DZS is well on its way towards zero-waste operations, the organization’s sustainability work goes beyond what happens on the campuses of the Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center.

“From community cleanup efforts to recycling programs to green education events, helping people understand and care about the planet is at the forefront of our efforts,” said Kagan. “We’re always looking for ways to involve the community and inspire them to join us on this green journey.”

– Alexandra Bahou is the communications manager for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Detroit Zoological Society Announces Dr. Grace Fuller as New Director of Animal Welfare

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is pleased to announce Dr. Grace Fuller as the organization’s new director of animal welfare and the leader of the DZS’s Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE). 

“I feel fortunate to embark on this next phase of my career with an organization that recognizes animal welfare to be the beating heart of the modern zoo,” said Dr. Fuller. “I look forward to continuing CZAAWE’s strong welfare monitoring and research programs, while exploring innovative ways to assess and understand animal welfare.” 

Dr. Fuller earned a Ph.D. in biology at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio and has more than a decade of experience in applied animal welfare science. Her dissertation work examined the hormonal and behavioral implications of design on the welfare of nocturnal primates in zoos. She went on to complete a post-doc with Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom.

Grace joined the Detroit Zoological Society in 2014 as the manager of applied animal welfare science at CZAAWE, which was established in 2009. CZAAWE is a resource center for captive animal welfare knowledge; a convener and forum for exotic animal welfare science, practice and policy discussions; and a center conducting research and training, and recognizing advances in exotic animal welfare.

Dr. Fuller led the development of the CZAAWE endocrinology lab and program, which uses non-invasive measures of hormones and other physiological indicators of welfare to help understand how animals at the Detroit Zoo are faring. The team measures hormones using molted penguin feathers, Japanese giant salamander skin sheds, giraffe saliva, and fecal samples from many different species. The CZAAWE lab has pioneered new methods that provide insights into different facets of animal welfare, including positive welfare states. 

“With Dr. Fuller in this pivotal position, the Detroit Zoological Society continues to bring scientific rigor and compassion to conservation and animal welfare,” said Ron Kagan, executive director and CEO for the Detroit Zoological Society.

– Alexandra Bahou is the communications manager for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Bringing the Mission Home: Sunset is Going Virtual!

Sunset at the Zoo is always metro-Detroit’s wildest party of the year — and this year, the guests get to host!

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has re-imagined this popular and vitally important fundraising event for 2020.  

With behind-the-scenes stories about animal care, wildlife conservation and environmental sustainability, Sunset for the Zoo: Bringing the Mission Home will take guests on an exciting and memorable journey.  

Premiering on September 17, this hour-long event will offer a fascinating look at the many ways the Detroit Zoological Society celebrates and saves wildlife

This year especially, Sunset also has a serious purpose. Like so many community organizations, the DZS has been terribly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Revenues that are normally generated by operations were cut off during the statewide shutdown and have been greatly reduced since the Zoo’s reopening in June. 

Unlike many museums and businesses, though, the Zoo could not send home its entire workforce and lock the gates.  Instead, daily (and nightly) care for more than 2,400 endangered animals has continued without interruption.  

In these extraordinary times, the Detroit Zoological Society is counting on the community to sustain its mission. The goal of Sunset for the Zoo: Bringing the Mission Home is to raise $500,000 through charitable giving and a silent auction offering dozens of “zoonique” items. The auction opens on September 14 at 4 p.m. and will close on September 20 at 4 p.m.

There are several ways to participate in Sunset for the Zoo: Bringing the Mission Home. Starting today, supporters can text “Sunset” to 243-725 or visit SunsetAtTheZoo.org for more information and exciting previewsEither of these methods will take you to the virtual Sunset premiere at 7 p.m. on September 17. The special will also air on the Detroit Zoo’s Facebook page.  

For more information, please visit SunsetAtTheZoo.org, text “Sunset” to 243-725 or call (248) 336-5858. 

Piping Plover Captive Rearing Program Celebrates Most Successful Year to Date

The year 2020 has quite literally gone to the birds. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has impacted people and wildlife around the world, 2020 is a milestone for endangered Great Lakes piping plovers – marking the most successful outcome of the Detroit Zoological Society’s Piping Plover Captive Rearing Program since it began nearly 20 years ago. 

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) program is funded by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and falls under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which was established in 2009 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In July, the EPA celebrated the year’s significance for this endangered species with the release of four Detroit Zoo-reared piping plovers at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan. This year, a total of 39 Detroit Zoo-reared piping plovers were released in northern Michigan. 

Photo courtesy of Alice Van Zoeren.

“It’s a bittersweet moment,” said Bonnie Van Dam, associate bird curator for the Detroit Zoological Society. “When you’re hatching the eggs and caring for the baby plovers, you get to know them individually – and it’s so exciting to watch them head into the wild knowing they will help bolster the population of this incredible bird.”

Some of the rescued piping plover stories are harrowing – like the three eggs and single hatchling that were left alone in the middle of an intense storm; their mother was killed by a coyote and their father fled. Field monitoring staff pulled the chick and eggs and kept them warm until they could be transferred to the Zoo. 

“We were able to pick them up from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, care for them and monitor them closely. Three out of the four chicks survived and were later released. Those are the stories that stick with you,” she said. 

Under normal circumstances, a DZS-led team would have incubated abandoned piping plover eggs in the captive rearing facility at the University of Michigan’s Biological Station in Pellston, Michigan. Due to the pandemic, the eggs were instead sent to the Detroit Zoo.

“We couldn’t let the pandemic prevent the rescue and rearing of these endangered birds. So, at the request of the USFWS, abandoned eggs were brought to the Detroit Zoo this year for incubation and rearing. The plovers were then sent to the Biological Station, where the birds were able to get more acclimated with their natural environment prior to their release,” said Van Dam.

Video courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Since the launch of the DZS-led piping plover salvage-rearing program in 2001, 299 captive reared birds have been successfully released. Currently, there are 64 pairs and 79 nests in the wild. In 2018, the USFWS recognized the DZS for its leadership in the recovery of this endangered species.

– Alexandra Bahou is the communications manager for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Here’s the Scoop: Injured Pelican Finds Refuge at the Detroit Zoo

An American white pelican believed to have survived last Michigan’s winter with fractures in both wings and an injured right foot has now found refuge at the Detroit Zoo after she was left behind by her scoop in Monroe, Michigan.

“It is uncommon that American white pelicans migrate through Michigan, but it happens from time to time,” said Bonnie Van Dam, associate curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society. “Unfortunately, when the rest of the pelicans left the area to continue on their migration, this girl simply couldn’t.”

In early May, concerned citizens reported seeing an injured bird at the Port of Monroe. She was picked up by a local licensed rehabilitator who then called the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) for help when the pelican was deemed non-releasable due to her injuries and refused to eat. When she arrived at the Detroit Zoo, she was weak, malnourished and unable to walk.  

“When we received her, she was underweight for the species – around 8 pounds,” said Van Dam. “After spending some time recuperating at the Detroit Zoo, she was able to pack on an extra 2 pounds. The average weight of an American white pelican can range from 10 to 15 pounds.”

During a medical examination, the DZS animal care staff determined that her injuries to both wings were old fractures, while her right foot injury seemed to be more recent. The cause of her injuries is unknown. 

“Quite honestly, she’s very tough,” said Van Dam. “It’s truly amazing that she was able to survive and keep herself fed with all of her injuries.”

DZS veterinary staff used two splint designs over a period of two months on her foot, which has since healed to the point where she can now use it. The damage to her wings, however, has rendered her permanently unable to fly. The American white pelican has joined four pink-backed pelicans in the American Grasslands habitat at the Detroit Zoo. 

“We’re still thinking on her name. We want to make sure we give her one that is strong and fitting of her personality,” said Van Dam. 

The newcomer can be distinguished by her larger stature, bright yellow beak and whiter feathers, with black tips on her wings. 

– Alexandra Bahou is the communications manager for the Detroit Zoological Society.