Experience a Story of Survival

Nearly three decades ago, a tiny Tahitian land snail called the Partula nodosa was declared extinct in the wild – only 26 individual snails remained. In a final attempt to save the species from being completely wiped from the Earth, those 26 snails were sent to the Detroit Zoo as part of a cooperative breeding program.

Animal care staff worked carefully to provide the best possible living conditions for the snails while focusing on their successful reproduction, which eventually resulted in the rescue and recovery of the species. Thirty years later, there are now more than 6,000 individuals living in North American zoos, all descendants from the original group that came to the Detroit Zoo. In the last two years, 160 of these snails have been sent to Tahiti for reintroduction in the wild.

Visitors to the Detroit Zoo can become a part of this story at Shelle Isle, an exhibit in the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery that features the conservation story of these tiny mollusks. Guests are transported to the Tahitian rainforest, surrounded by tropical plants. A short video tells the snails’ story from a stable population in the first half of the 20th century to their sharp decline in the late 1970s, when an attempt to protect farmers’ crops from African land snails went awry and the Florida rosy wolf snails that were introduced to control the population preferred to eat the Partulid snails. The video also includes footage from the release of the Detroit-bred snails in Tahiti in 2015. Guests are invited to feel the shell of a giant replica of the Partula nodosa and more closely observe its structure and form. A second monitor has a live camera feed into the p. nodosa habitat in a behind-the-scenes area at the Detroit Zoo, giving guests a glimpse of the snails’ daily lives.

A favorite feature in this space is a large, “fallen” log where tiny, exact replica snails sit. Two magnifying glasses attached to the log allow visitors to get a close view of these tiny creatures. Many of them have a yellow number painted on their shell, which represents the way the snails are tagged by scientists before being released in Tahiti in order to monitor their movements and survival. The few that don’t have numbers painted on them are meant to demonstrate the successful reproduction in the wild that researchers have already observed, and the project’s continued success.

For us, an important part of this story is that it focuses not on a charismatic megavertebrate, but on a species that is not well-known, isn’t found on nursery walls or represented in the rows of stuffed animals on a toy store shelf. Conservation is not a beauty contest; all animals are important and the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) works tirelessly to conserve species large and small – including the tiniest and slimiest of snails. By supporting the DZS, you are a critical part of this important work.

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

Greenprint: Hosting Eco-Friendly Celebrations

Americans amass 258 million tons of garbage annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And while 35 percent of that is recycled or composted, the remaining 169 million tons of trash ends up in landfills – the breakdown of which creates toxic gases that pollute our air and water and contribute to global warming. An even more staggering statistic is that in Michigan, only 15 percent of waste produced annually is recycled – far less than the national average.

We can all take steps in our daily lives to reduce the amount of waste we are creating. At the Detroit Zoo, we no longer sell bottled water or provide plastic bags at zoo concessions. We’re converting 500 tons of animal manure annually into energy to power our animal hospital. And we are working toward a lofty goal of becoming an entirely waste-free zoo – which is not an easy task.

It’s all a part of this journey we’re on – our Green Journey – to create a more sustainable future and protect the wildlife and wild places around us. We encourage you to join us. Download our Shades of Green guide and learn what actions you can take to lighten your impact on the Earth.

With summer upon us, barbecues, picnics and pool parties are in full swing as we enjoy the beautiful weather. But oftentimes with these events, we generate a great deal of waste. Disposable paper plates and paper napkins are common, as are disposable plastic cups and cutlery. By reducing cleanup time, the event becomes easier on the host; however, the waste becomes significant. Consider holding a waste-free event and ask your guests to embrace the effort.

Here are some tips for hosting a zero-waste event:

  • Decorate with flowers and plants, which can be composted when the event is over.
  • Use cloth napkins that are easy to launder.
  • Serve food with reusable dishes and cutlery.
  • For a unique party favor, go to a second-hand store and purchase vintage-inspired plateware and encourage guests to take their plate home.
  • Forget the red solo cups; use glasses and purchase an erasable marker to write guests’ names on their glass.
  • Consider composting. If you do, be sure to educate your guests on what items can be composted before they scrape the food. Also, if they know the goal is to be waste-free, they may be more conscientious of how much food they put on their plate.
  • Get creative and have fun with it – zero-waste parties can be beautiful, along with being greener!

Portions of our annual 21-and-older fundraising gala, Sunset at the Zoo – this Friday, June 16 – are going to be waste-free. Guests will receive a commemorative glass with their champagne welcome that they can use throughout the evening as they sample drinks and dishes from more than 50 restaurants and distributors and enjoy live entertainment. Reusable bags and our Shades of Green guide will also be gifted to guests. In addition, food waste generated from the event will be composted in our anaerobic digester. This is all a part of this year’s theme of “Green is the New Black” – which celebrates our award-winning sustainability initiatives. But Sunset at the Zoo is more than just a great party – it raises funds that are critical to supporting the Detroit Zoological Society and our mission of Celebrating and Saving Wildlife.

– Rachel Handbury is the manager of sustainability for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Congress Draws Global Animal Welfare Leaders to Detroit Zoo

The 4th international animal welfare congress was held May 4-6, 2017, by the Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare (CZAW), drawing leaders in the field from all over the world. Convening leaders in animal welfare is one of the Center’s primary initiatives and this was the first time we co-hosted with the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a global organization for leading zoos and aquariums, asked to join in our effort to move forward the welfare of animals living in the care humans. We were thrilled to combine our collective power to make a difference.

The congress brought together 140 of the world’s experts in animal welfare representing accredited zoos and aquariums, regional accrediting associations, academia and animal welfare protection organizations to discuss issues of ethics and the future of zoos and aquariums. We are committed to advancing animal welfare and although progress has been made –  both in the science and policy arenas – we must continue to face existing challenges head-on if we are to succeed. The thought-provoking conversations of this esteemed group will help to pave a path forward for zoos and aquariums around the globe.

Organizations entrusted with the care of individual animals have a unique and profound responsibility to go beyond providing good care to ensure that each individual is experiencing great welfare. Accredited zoos and aquariums are striving to raise standards of animal welfare and to ensure animals in their care are thriving. The future of zoos and aquariums depends on our ability to move forward as welfare centers, both within and beyond our walls, championing a compassionate conservation approach.

As the human footprint continues to expand and animals – both individuals and at the population level – are increasingly threatened, accredited zoos and aquariums can play a critical role in the protection and preservation of the beings with whom we share the world. The very foundation of such endeavors is a global commitment to the welfare of all animals living in the care of humans. We look forward to sharing some of the presentations from the congress on the CZAW website, and to a future in which all animals have the opportunity to thrive.

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

Save a Life and Find a “Fur-ever” Friend

Three weeks ago, I adopted a 7-year-old female yellow Labrador retriever from a local animal shelter. I named her Clemmie, short for Clementine. She was found as a malnourished stray with protruding ribs and visible signs indicating she’d been used to breed many litters of puppies. It’s quite possible that she was dumped when she was no longer wanted by her previous owner. While I can’t undo the things that have happened to her in the past, I will do all that I can to provide the best possible life for her going forward. As Clemmie’s newly trusted guardian, I am committed to her well-being for the remainder of her life.

In the few short weeks since she joined my family, Clemmie has brought me immense joy. She greets me with tail wags and kisses each day when I return home from work. We spend time together taking long walks, meeting neighbors and enjoying our time in nature. She’s not yet certain how to play with toys, but I’ll continue to work with her on that. I’ve purchased dog food puzzles that will provide her with mental stimulation when I have to leave her at home alone. I’m also looking into playtime opportunities at local dog parks. I’m truly grateful to have found my “fur-ever” best friend. While it might appear that I rescued her, she’s brought as much happiness into my life as I have hers.

Unfortunately, an estimated 10,000 dogs and cats are euthanized in shelters each day due to a lack of homes. That adds up to 3-4 million animals in the U. S. each year. So when you adopt an animal, not only are you bringing home a new member of your family, you’re also responsible for saving that individual’s life.

Local rescue organizations and shelters can support you in finding the perfect companion animal for you. Join us this weekend for Meet Your Best Friend at the Zoo – one of the nation’s largest off-site companion animal adoption events – where hundreds of dogs, cats, puppies and kittens are available for adoption to loving homes. And don’t forget to stop by the Zoo’s humane education table while you’re there and learn more about how we work to help people help animals.

– Lisa Forzley is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Berman Academy for Humane Education.

Wildlife Conservation: Lending Amphibian “Sexpertise” to Other Accredited Zoos

I recently participated in a partnership to save an incredible species of amphibian: the blue spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale). This animal is regionally endangered in parts of the Midwest and about 10 years ago, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources started a partnership with Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. They wanted to breed these salamanders for release at locations where they once thrived but have now disappeared. Having had little success in doing so thus far, the organizations reached out and requested my amphibian “sexpertise”. I travelled to Omaha to deploy some of my special reproductive techniques with the blue spotted salamander assurance colony living there.

It comes as no surprise that these salamanders proved very difficult to breed. Blue spotted salamanders need an extraordinary amount of “salamander romance” in order to breed naturally. These animals undergo winter brumation (a hibernation-like state). In the spring, they will emerge from brumation when it begins to rain and when the temperature rises in order to migrate to breeding ponds. Their migrations can be over several miles, and most salamanders return to the same pond every breeding season. In captive breeding situations, we attempt to recreate the cues that the salamanders take from the wild in order to get them “in the mood” for breeding. We cool them down and offer them the opportunity to undergo brumation. We place them in rain chambers so they can experience an “indoor storm”. We also attempt to create a naturalistic pond for them to breed in with proper vegetation and leaf litter.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, the natural cues we provide artificially are not enough to trigger breeding. Many amphibians are having difficulty breeding in the wild, due to changes in the climate and their habitat. Given that the natural environment is not currently providing ideal cues for breeding, it is especially difficult to perfectly recreate environmental breeding cues for animals in human care. When captive animals do not breed in response to the cues we provide, we often use hormone treatments to give them a little boost. These hormone protocols are meant to trigger breeding behaviors as well as the release of sperm and eggs. In the best-case scenario, the application of hormones will result in the animals breeding on their own. In the worst-case scenario, the animals will not breed on their own after the application of hormones and an in vitro fertilization (an artificial fertilization of the eggs with the sperm in a petri dish) will take place.

We used a combination of natural cues and hormones to stimulate breeding in the blue spotted salamanders. The amount of hormones I gave to the female blue spotted salamanders was determined by how developed their eggs looked on ultrasound. While giving the animals hormones resulted in many interesting behaviors, the salamanders did not breed on their own. After giving them time to breed on their own without success, I attempted in vitro fertilization. In order to perform this technique, I needed to collect eggs from the females and sperm from the males. There was one big problem with attempting this technique – the male blue spotted salamanders were not producing sperm. Fortunately, I had a back-up plan!

The blue spotted salamander is no ordinary salamander. In the wild, many female blue spotted salamanders breed through a special adaptation called kleptogenesis, meaning that they steal sperm. You read that correctly: sperm thieves. Most salamanders undergo internal fertilization. This occurs when the male deposits the sperm in a ball – called a spermatophore – into the environment. Through a courtship dance, the spermatophore is collected by the female. These special female blue spotted salamanders will find and collect spermatophores deposited by males from other, closely related, species (including Jefferson’s salamanders, tiger salamanders, and small-mouth salamanders). This is the part where it becomes complicated. Rather than using the sperm to fertilize their eggs and have hybrid offspring, an enzyme in the sperm activates the egg which begins to grow into an embryo. The rest of the sperm is discarded, and the offspring which develop are essentially clones of the mother. Knowing that blue spotted salamander females are often sperm thieves, I had the Omaha Zoo’s resident male tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum) on standby. I was able to collect sperm from the tiger salamanders in order to use in the in vitro fertilization of the blue spotted salamander eggs.

Unfortunately, the eggs did not fertilize with the tiger salamander sperm. While we did not achieve offspring, we learned what we need to do differently next time around. We certainly will not give up on these amazing animals. We will try to breed the blue spotted salamanders again later this year, using slightly different techniques.

Thank you to our partners at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and the Iowa DNR.

– Dr. Ruth Marcec is the director of the National Amphibian Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo.

Greenprint: Using Compost to Fertilize Gardens

Spring fever has officially set in and naturally, one of the things on many people’s minds is gardening. We recommend incorporating “gardener’s gold” as you prep your plots this year: Composting can help you save money while also reducing waste and improving the quality of your soil. As you work on cleaning up your yard, you can add the materials to a compost bin and toss in your organic food scraps – they’ll naturally decompose to create a nutrient-rich fertilizer that will help you grow healthy plants.

There are many benefits to composting:

  • Reduce landfill waste. Nearly 30 percent of the garbage that is sent to Michigan landfills could actually have been composted.
  • Decrease the amount of greenhouse gases produced by food waste sent to landfills.
  • Improve soil quality by adding compost to gardens.
  • Reduce the use of chemical fertilizers.
  • Save money – use your own compost instead of purchasing fertilizer from a store.

How to compost at home:

  1. Choose an area in your backyard with good drainage and shade.
  2. Start the pile with a layer of twigs or mulch as a base.
  3. Add a thin layer of “green” materials, e.g., fruit and vegetable peelings, grass clippings or weeds.
  4. Cover with a layer of “brown” materials, e.g., dry leaves, twigs, paper or straw.
  5. Moisten your compost pile.
  6. Repeat steps 3, 4 and 5.
  7. Turn the pile every four to six weeks.

*Avoid placing meat or dairy products in compost.

You’ll be able to use the compost in your gardens in three or four months. If you’d like to speed up the process or don’t have room for an outdoor compost pile, you can purchase a batch-style composter for under $100 at most hardware stores. These bins can be placed on decks and take up less space in your yard.

For more in-depth information on the benefits of composting as well as detailed instructions on how to compost, you can refer to https://www.epa.gov/recycle/composting-home and www.howtocompost.org.

We’re breaking down organic matter at the Detroit Zoo on a much grander scale! More than 500 tons of waste is generated annually by the animals that live here. So, in order to reduce our ecological footprint and move closer to reaching our goal of becoming waste-free, we constructed an anaerobic digester on Zoo grounds. Anaerobic digestion is a process by which plant and animal materials are broken down, producing a methane-rich gas. This renewable energy will be used to power the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo, saving us $110-120,000 a year in energy costs. By diverting manure and food waste from the landfills, we are also reducing the greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change – methane and carbon dioxide – in the atmosphere. The remaining nutrient-rich material will be used as compost to fertilize the gardens throughout the Zoo’s 125 acres.

Next time you are at the Zoo, check out our new sign detailing the anaerobic digestion process and contemplate the impact of keeping 55 wheelbarrows of manure each day out of the landfills!

Join us on our Green Journey and begin composting this spring! Take a look at the many other steps you can take to help us create a more sustainable future by downloading our Shades of Green guide.

– Rachel Handbury is the manager of sustainability for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the award-winning Greenprint initiatives.

Preventative Care Ensures Quality of Life for Zoo Animals

Spring has sprung! This time of year brings April showers, blooming daffodils, lawns to mow and the delightful warmth of the sun finally reaching our skin. It also brings mosquitos, an aspect of the season I do not enjoy. While their numbers are still low, they are staging a comeback and before long, I’ll be carrying bug spray with me in my bag.

With mosquitos comes heartworm season, a time when veterinarians and pet owners are reminded of the importance of the preventive care they provide the animals in their lives. Taking preventive measures is the best way to avoid bigger, more difficult problems in the future. At the Detroit Zoo, we have an extensive preventive medicine program that addresses vaccinations, parasite prevention, nutrition and regular examinations.

Vaccinations are one of the most important tools available to prevent disease in animals and people. In zoo medicine, we refer to literature to determine the safest and most effective vaccines available for the species in our care. We also communicate frequently with zoo and animal health colleagues to better understand diseases of concern. Each month, we participate in a One-Health conference call with veterinarians from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and public health officials from the Department of Health and Human Services. We discuss the diseases currently posing a risk to humans and animals alike, talk about the most common diseases and discuss newer threats, such as avian influenza and Lyme’s disease. At the Detroit Zoo, we use vaccines to prevent many of these diseases, including rabies, distemper, leptospirosis and tetanus. Contagious diseases can be introduced to the animals by wild raccoons, skunks, rodents and feral and pet cats that enter the Zoo, and it’s important that we protect susceptible zoo animals. We use vaccines developed for domestic horses, cows and cats to protect the zebras, elands and lions.

Heartworm disease is another focus of preventive care. Heartworm is transmitted by mosquitos and can go undetected until infection poses a serious health risk. You may know that heartworm disease infects dogs and cats, but you may be surprised to learn the array of animals at the Zoo that can be affected. Seals, arctic foxes, bush dogs, lions, tigers, otters and wolverines are all treated year-round with a monthly preventive treatment. I am happy to report that in my more than 20-year career, we have never had an animal test positive for heartworm disease at the Zoo. If your dog or cat is not being treated for heartworm, it’s important to have them tested first, and then to start them on prevention as soon as possible. It’s never too late to get started.

Examinations are another important part of preventive care. Every day, the animal care staff observes each animal at the Zoo, noting any abnormal appearance or behavior to the veterinary staff. Many health problems are detected through these diligent observations, but we also periodically perform a  hands-on exam to be sure we aren’t missing anything. During examinations, we take radiographs to check for arthritis; feel for bumps and skin problems; examine the eyes with an ophthalmoscope, and use ultrasound to check the heart and abdominal organs. We do a careful dental exam and scale and polish the teeth – this is often the most important thing we do to improve health. During these exams, we also collect a blood sample and run tests to get an impression of overall health and check for diseases of concern.

One of the most rewarding things as a veterinarian is to find a problem before it becomes life threatening and fix it. With close observations, exams and regular care, we tip the odds in favor of finding problems early and being able to intervene, but this is not always possible. Last year, I lost my beloved golden retriever to cancer after a very sudden illness. Even though I miss her, I am at peace because I know that there isn’t anything I could have done to change her end-of-life story. Here at the Zoo, the animal care and veterinary teams strive to do the same. We do all that we can to find problems early, to treat illness when possible, and to help animals nearing the end of their lives maintain the best-possible quality of life. I’m proud of the care that we provide the animals at the Zoo, and glad to share these stories.

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