Quick-Change Veterinary Action from Vultures to Flamingos

During my career as a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society, I’ve learned that anything is possible. In January, I went to South Africa to work on a DZS-supported vulture conservation project, with a plan to do routine health checks and blood testing on 200 vultures, but within a few days, I found myself flying off to another part of the country to help rescue abandoned flamingo chicks.

I was prepared for the vultures, but the flamingos were completely unexpected. Despite the fact that both animals are birds, the list of differences is far longer than the list of similarities, from their diets and method of consumption to their habitats, the way they move and fly, how they build their nests and at what rate they grow.

The Detroit Zoo is home to many of the same species of vultures I was sent to work with at Vulpro, a vulture rescue, rehabilitation and conservation organization in South Africa. During my time with the DZS, I have developed special skills with vultures over the years, and I was ready to do this work. The DZS has a long history of working with vultures and is working with Vulpro to protect these endangered and threatened species. However, after only five days, we received an unusual phone call: A Lesser flamingo breeding colony located at Kamfers Dam, a two-hour flight south in the city of Kimberley, was in serious trouble. The flamingo breeding season was just beginning, but the water in the dam had dried up. This left thousands of young chicks and eggs abandoned by their parents, who had to go elsewhere to find food. VulPro immediately stepped in to help, on the condition that I was willing to oversee the care of the chicks. But I hadn’t prepared for this. Vultures: no problem. Flamingo chicks: not even on my radar. Fortunately, we had just spent the previous five months hand-raising a Chilean flamingo chick at the Detroit Zoo, so I had experiential training. Additionally, I recently devoted two years to studying for a comprehensive exam to become certified as a zoo vet specialist through the American College of Zoological Medicine, so I was prepared for work with nearly any species.

And that’s how our mission suddenly shifted from examining and blood testing 200 African vultures to preparing for the arrival of an unknown number of flamingo chicks of uncertain ages and in varying states of health…as quickly as possible. I needed to formulate the chick feed – a blend of shrimp, fish, eggs, rice cereal and vitamins, determine feeding protocols and schedules, develop a biosecurity protocol, prepare antibiotic and fluid dosages for sick chicks, set temperature and humidity requirements and help the amazing VulPro staff construct appropriate housing for flamingo chicks weighing about 2 ounces when they typically work with 18-pound vultures.

In the field of zoo medicine, you quickly learn who to call when you need help, and in this case, that was Bonnie Van Dam, the DZS’s associate bird curator, and Cher Fajardo, the DZS’s bird supervisor. They’ve both gained expertise and amassed a lot of resources during many years raising flamingo chicks. They gave me the exact information I needed, and with the help of VulPro staff, volunteers, and other conservation partners, we were prepared. Within 24 hours, I was on a very small plane flying over South Africa to Kimberley to triage, treat and transport 165 tiny little flamingo chicks.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and operates out of the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Experience our Digital Animal Observation Trek

The Detroit Zoo is widely known for its expansive and naturalistic habitats. From the 4-acre Great Apes of Harambee to the 4-acre Arctic Ring of Life, these spaces provide the animals with plenty of room to roam and to demonstrate natural behaviors that enhance their well-being.

It is because of this that the viewing experience for guests is similar to what it’s like when observing animals in the wild. It requires patience and an understanding of our animal welfare philosophy to ensure the individuals in our care have choice and control over how and where they spend time in their habitat. A variety of viewing areas are incorporated into the habitats’ design for guests to have the chance to walk around and observe the animals’ behaviors throughout the entirety of the space.

We also give guests curated suggestions of how to explore the Zoo in different ways through our interactive mobile map system called Detroit Zoo Treks. Guests can choose among several timed treks, a Fitness Trek, one that focuses on our wildlife conservation and animal rescue work, one that highlights our award-winning sustainability initiatives, and the new Animal Observation Trek. This latest trek provides visitors an opportunity to share their observations of animals with Detroit Zoological Society staff through simple surveys that can be completed on a mobile device. The digital trek currently features six animals: otters, lions, giraffes, kangaroos, wolves and eagles. As guests visit each of their habitats, they can access the survey and indicate if the animal is currently in view.

If the animal is visible, guests are asked to share what behaviors they observe the animal engaged in. After submitting their observations, information on how to distinguish between individual animals is shared through the system. If an animal is not viewable, guests are then prompted to look for signs of where the animal may have been previously spending time in the space. When the survey is submitted, a tip on where the animals prefer to spend their time in the habitat is shared to help guests observe them on their next visit. All of the survey results are recorded and shared with DZS staff, which is added to their own research and observations about where and how the animals are choosing to spend their time.

The Detroit Zoo Treks are based on a map of the Zoo and include important locations such as rides and attractions, concessions, restrooms and other guest amenities. To participate in the Animal Observation Trek on your next trip to the Zoo, visit www.dzoo.org/trek and select your digital adventure.

Fundraising Gala Highlights New Habitats that Promote Great Animal Welfare

Whenever we design and construct a new animal habitat, our focus is on ensuring it is expansive, naturalistic and meets the animals’ specific needs. These spaces should provide the animals with opportunities to do the things that are important to them – be it climbing trees, swimming, wallowing in the mud, and interacting with social partners (or avoiding social partners if that’s what they want at any given time).

Attendees of the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) annual fundraising gala, Sunset at the Zoo, on Friday, June 7, will have the opportunity to observe two newly renovated and expanded spaces in the Detroit Zoo’s Asian Forest that succeed in doing just that.

A few months ago, red pandas Ash, Ravi and Ta-shi moved into the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest. DZS staff immediately began making observations to determine the effect of the new space on the well-being of the animals. We call this a “post-occupancy evaluation” – in this case, it consisted of behavioral observations on each individual as they explored their home. We spent eight weeks monitoring where they chose to spend their time and how their behavior varied based on a number of different factors, including noise levels and if guests were present in a new way the habitat provides. A 70-foot long canopy walkway extends through the trees of the space, allowing visitors to have a red panda’s-eye view.

 

Through these observations, we learned exactly what we hoped for – the red pandas demonstrated diverse “activity budgets”, which means they engaged in different behaviors throughout the day. We were really pleased to see that Ash and Ravi explored and scent-marked their space, both signs that it is stimulating for them. Ta-shi spent a bit more time inactive than the others, which is not surprising given that she is older.

The red pandas made use of most of their space, but did have some preferences, including spending time high up in the trees. This is a natural tendency for the species, and we were glad to see them use the elevated features. Having visitors present on the bridge did not seem to change their preferred resting locations, although Ash occasionally stayed inside the holding building when the habitat first opened. In order to allow the red pandas to acclimate to their new surroundings, we provided them with the choice to go inside their respective buildings. Enabling animals to choose where to spend their time is an important factor in ensuring positive welfare. This ability to retreat was also helpful when noise levels rose, primarily due to the construction happening at the Devereaux Tiger Forest close by. We were thrilled to see that Ash, Ravi and Ta-shi found their home to be a great place to live, letting us know that all of the planning that went into this habitat expansion was successful.

 

Our next post-occupancy evaluation will focus on the Devereaux Tiger Forest. The tiger forest will significantly increase the amount of space for tigers. Naturalistic features, including caves, trees, elevated areas, a waterfall and pool, have been incorporated in order to promote species-appropriate behaviors. We look forward to assessing how the new habitat impacts the well-being of the tigers when the habitat opens this summer.

This year’s Sunset at the Zoo celebrates the Asian Forest, which includes both the tigers’ and red pandas’ new digs. On the evening of Friday, June 7, guests will have the opportunity to explore the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest and take a sneak peek at the new Devereaux Tiger Forest. Just as the red panda habitat includes an exciting new experience for guests with the canopy walkway, the tiger habitat has a thrilling element of its own. In addition to expansive acrylic viewing windows, an SUV will be positioned half in the habitat and half out, allowing visitors to sit in the driver’s seat – and a tiger might just lounge on the hood.

Proceeds for Sunset at the Zoo benefit the Detroit Zoological Society’s mission of Celebrating and Saving Wildlife.

– 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.

Sustainability is All in a Day’s Work

We all want that work/life balance, but when it comes to being green, let’s let the scale fall to the wayside. Incorporating sustainable practices into your daily life doesn’t just have to be at home – you can take these behaviors with you to the office. There are many ways to be green while on the job; here are some tips on how to reduce waste and use less energy from 9 to 5:

Green machines. Think of all the buzzing and beeping around you. It takes a lot of energy to power machines such as computers, printers and phones. Like you, computers need rest too – by powering down your devices when you leave for the night, you can save thousands of watts of energy per year. The machines inside the building aren’t the only ones that can go green. Carpooling to work helps reduce the amount of exhaust in the air. Doing so will not only benefit the environment, but it will promote team-building and reduce the amount of money spent on gas.

Paper-less is more. Going digital in the workplace has many benefits, such as saving time, money and space. Having information stored in databases rather than paper files can make it easier to search for that specific document you’re looking for. You will save money on storage space and also save time rummaging for that document you need.  If you do need to print, setting printers to copy double-sided by default will not only reduce your paper use by 50 percent, but it will also save the company money by not having to purchase paper as frequently.

Be bright about the light. Illuminating an entire office building takes a lot of energy and money. If your office uses fluorescent lights, consider replacing them with energy-efficient lights such as LEDs. And when it comes time to leave for the day, make sure to turn off the lights in your area. Motion-sensor lights can cut down the use of power if someone forgets to turn off the lights, so they don’t remain on all night when no one’s there. If you have a window in your office, consider working with just the natural light. During the warm months, instead of running the air conditioner, crack the window to let the fresh air in. Many office buildings have high levels of CO2, which contributes to high stress levels – by cracking the window you can improve air quality, as well as cut the cost of air conditioning.

Ditch the disposables. Styrofoam cups and plates are often used in staff kitchens, along with plastic silverware and other disposable utensils. Styrofoam can take 500 years to break down, and it takes up 25-30 percent of landfills. Throw out the disposables once and for all and replace them with reusable plates, silverware and mugs. You could also request that the powers-that-be invest in a water cooler for the office to fill reusable cups throughout the day instead of buying an endless supply of plastic bottles of water. It may seem expensive at first to buy reusable items, but you will see the cost difference in no time. By eliminating the need to repurchase these disposable items, you – and the company – will save your green by going green.

Energize organically. Many of us need that extra boost from coffee or tea in the morning to get our day started. Try getting that boost from fair trade and organic coffee and tea. Fair trade farms employ strategies for environmental sustainability by protecting the land and wildlife. Some of these farmers use the shade-grown method, which means coffee is grown under a canopy layer of trees, which not only preserves native trees, but also protects habitats for many endangered animals.  If workers prefer to go out for their coffee, suggest they bring a reusable mug – many places offer discounts if you do this. What better way to beat that 3 o’clock feeling than with coffee or tea that also saves you money.

Green Team. Implementing a green team in the workplace is a great way to raise awareness and brainstorm new ways to bring sustainability into the office. Work together to create a recycling program, help educate other staff members or organizational leadership and research information about energy-efficient appliances and green cleaning supplies. The Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) Green Team was founded in 2002 to help minimize our ecological footprint and to educate staff and visitors about choices that enable us to live a more Earth-friendly lifestyle. Being a part of our Green Team is voluntary; it is comprised of representatives from every DZS department who share their commitment, expertise and time to make our facilities greener places for staff, visitors, animals and the planet. The Green Team was a strong advocate for the development of our Greenprint goals and objectives and has been instrumental in carrying out these award-winning policies and procedures.

As a team, you can work together to find the best solutions for your office to lessen your impact on the environment. By being more conscientious, we can reduce the amount of waste we produce and energy we use, reuse what we can to keep unnecessary items out of landfills and recycle the items we don’t need the proper way. Doing so will help save wildlife and wild places for generations to come.

Notes from the Field: Treating Endangered African Vultures

This is the second in a series detailing the Detroit Zoological Society’s recent vulture conservation fieldwork in South Africa. For Part I, click here.

The Detroit Zoological Society’s latest field conservation project was with VulPro, an organization in South Africa that works to rehabilitate sick and injured vultures in order to return them to vulnerable wild populations. With seven of the 11 African vulture species currently endangered or critically endangered, the DZS is working with VulPro to reverse the crisis literally one vulture at a time.

Through community outreach efforts, sick vultures come to VulPro from as far as eight hours away. They arrive in all sorts of conditions, sometimes with broken bones or open wounds, signs of poisoning or evidence of electrocution, and they’re often dehydrated and starving.

I traveled to South Africa this winter to assist VulPro in their efforts. During my time there, a farmer discovered a Cape vulture on his land that was weak and unable to fly, and a VulPro volunteer drove several hours to collect the bird and bring him back to us. He was an older adult male who we affectionately called “Old Guy”, and when he arrived, he was too weak to stand or even lift his head. We immediately got to work. A brief assessment revealed that he was severely dehydrated. We secured an identification band, placed an intravenous catheter in a vein in his leg, and examined, cleaned and bandaged a wound on his left wing. The wound – as well as bruising along his elbow – were presumably caused by barbed wire and likely left him temporarily unable to fly.

We then moved Old Guy into an ICU unit – a small space that prevented him from pulling on his fluid line but also allows us to see him at all times – which also happened to be the shower in the VulPro director’s house. VulPro is a small but mighty non-profit, and the team makes creative use of every resource available, even if that means sharing the bathroom with a critical vulture patient. After 15 minutes, Old Guy was still quite lifeless, with a heart rate two times slower than a healthy vulture. We continued to keep a close watch, and after 45 minutes on fluids, he was able to stand on his own. Over the next several hours, Old Guy slowly came back to life. He was given a companion vulture overnight and both were moved to the outdoor hospital enclosures in the morning. Over the next few days, Old Guy improved dramatically and began eating on his own. He even got a bit feisty with us, which is a true sign of a healthy vulture.

Over the past two months, Old Guy has continued to improve, and he will be released later this month at VulPro’s release site in the Magaliesberg mountains.

VulPro also conducts many crucial research and population-level conservation initiatives, but saving individuals like Old Guy – one vulture at a time – is at the core of the mission of both the Detroit Zoological Society and VulPro. This truly exemplifies compassionate conservation.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and operates out of the Detroit Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Animal Welfare: How do You Know if They’re ‘Happy’?

Think about the term, “animal welfare”, and what it means to you. When you encounter an animal – in any setting, be it a zoo, a friend’s house or even your own living room – are there certain cues that help you decide if you feel the animal is having a good or a bad time – or experiencing positive or negative welfare? It may be the animal’s appearance, behaviors, what the space looks like where they live, or perhaps it’s based on your knowledge about that species.

In some cases, it’s relatively easy to determine that an animal is in a poor welfare state. If they’re living in dirty and cramped conditions, don’t have access to social partners – or perhaps too many – or if they have obvious signs of injuries or illness without any indication they’re under veterinary care, it’s likely the animal is not experiencing good welfare. But when you look at other, less obvious factors, such as if the animal is quietly resting in a spacious habitat, or if the animal is moving back and forth in one area of their space, the answers are less clear.

The concept of animal welfare refers to an animal’s physical, mental and emotional states over a period of time. It is based on the individual’s experience, which can be different from one species to another, and from one animal to another. It is not about what is provided to an animal, such as food and water – this doesn’t automatically ensure good welfare. Although having access to these resources is critical to creating conditions that may lead to good welfare, it is actually how the animal perceives those conditions that determines their welfare. We can’t simply measure welfare in terms of square footage, gallons of water or the nutritional content of food items. We must use indicators from the animals themselves, such as behavior, physical condition and even emotional responses.

These indicators represent the three different concepts of welfare. The first has to do with an animal’s ability to engage in natural behaviors, or live in a way it has evolved to. The second involves biological functioning and prioritizes an animal’s physical health. The last focuses on the animal’s feelings and emotional states, with an emphasis on minimizing negative emotions and promoting positive ones. Should we favor one concept over another, it is possible we would miss something important to an individual animal.

If two people were to assess an animal using two different concepts, they could come to conflicting conclusions about that animal’s welfare state. This is why we incorporate aspects of all three of these concepts when evaluating animal welfare. This allows us to gain a much more holistic picture of the animal’s experience and to consider all of the factors that impact their well-being.

– 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.

Notes from the Field: Saving Endangered African Vultures

Most people probably don’t consider vultures to be lovable creatures. But I do, which is why I spent a month this winter working with VulPro, an African vulture conservation organization that rescues and rehabilitates sick and injured vultures. I first fell in love with the African vultures who live here at the Detroit Zoo – there are four different species with as many different personalities as there are individual vultures. By caring for these animals, not only did I gain affection and respect for African vultures, but I also gained special skills in the veterinary care of these amazing birds, and I was thrilled when the Detroit Zoological Society gave me the opportunity to use those skills to help directly with the conservation of wild vultures in Africa.

You may wonder why African vultures need saving. Groups of turkey vultures soaring overhead are a common sight here in Michigan. Fortunately, North American vulture species are doing well, but all across the continent of Africa, populations of wild vultures are declining rapidly. There are 11 species of vultures in Africa, and according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List, seven of those species are currently endangered or critically endangered.

Vultures play a significant role in the ecosystem health; they are essentially nature’s clean-up crew. By scavenging and cleaning up carcasses, they can prevent the spread of deadly diseases, such as anthrax and botulism, and they have an amazing ability to clean up these diseases without becoming infected themselves. Without vultures around to provide their sanitation services, infected carcasses disappear more slowly and attract more mammalian scavengers, resulting in a huge increase in the potential for disease transmission. Thus, it is hugely problematic that African vulture populations are plummeting and so quickly.

There are numerous threats to wild populations of vultures. In South Africa, power line collisions are one of the biggest threats to vultures. In other places, vultures are subject to poisoning; for instance, poachers will often poison carcasses to prevent circling vultures from alerting rangers to the poached animal’s remains. Sometimes vultures are unintentionally poisoned when a farmer is trying to target a predator, such as a lion, that has been preying on cattle. Vultures can also face long-term health problems from eating carcasses that have bullet fragments in them, causing lead poisoning.

African vulture populations are in serious need of help, and the Detroit Zoological Society is working with VulPro, an African vulture conservation organization based near Pretoria, South Africa, to rehabilitate the sick and injured wild vultures they receive and release them back into the wild. When staff are unable to restore a vulture’s ability to survive in the wild, the bird becomes a resident at VulPro and has the opportunity to nest and breed. The offspring are then released into the wild.

In January, I traveled to South Africa to perform routine health checks for the more than 200 vultures that live at VulPro’s facility. This involved checking their body condition, listening to their heart and lungs, checking wing and leg joints, and looking into their eyes. We also set up a small laboratory for VulPro, where we collected blood to look at red and white blood cell counts, measure blood protein levels, and test for the presence of lead. I also checked fecal samples to look for parasites. Our results showed the overall health of the residents at VulPro is excellent!

This partnership with VulPro is the latest in the Detroit Zoological Society’s comprehensive wildlife conservation programs. We are committed to saving birds around the world.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society.