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.

Be A Citizen Scientist: Help Track Tick Activity

If you have noticed more Michiganders complaining about ticks recently, you’re not alone. During the last few summers, it seems as if people in the state are finding ticks on themselves and on their dogs/pets more than ever before.  In recent years, ticks have expanded their active season, and have been found earlier in the spring and in increasing numbers. It’s a trend that is worrisome, particularly with the surge of people enjoying outdoor recreation during the pandemic and warmer summer months.  

Humans and many species of animals are susceptible to tick-transmitted diseases, most notably Lyme disease.  Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the US, and it is caused by a bacterium that is passed through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks.  Lyme disease is prevalent in the Northeast and much of the North Central United States; it is expanding its range in Michigan, largely because the blacklegged tick is expanding its range!  According to the Michigan Emerging and Zoonotic Disease summary published by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, 262 human cases were reported in 2018, with most Michigan exposures occurring in the Upper Peninsula and western Lower Peninsula.  

In order to better protect themselves and their families, Michiganders should be informed of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses, and learn how to avoid exposure.  University researchers have developed a useful tool to track the spread of Lyme disease and better inform people living in areas with blacklegged ticks.

The Tick App is a free mobile health app developed by collaborators from Michigan State University, the University of Wisconsin and Columbia University.  Besides being a reliable and handy resource with information about ticks and tick prevention, the Tick App gives you the opportunity to contribute as a citizen scientist.  If you provide consent to the research and complete an entry survey (which takes 5 -10 minutes), you will be prompted regularly to make a “daily log.” The daily log should take about a minute to complete. It asks if you or a household member (including your furry ones!) encountered a tick, what you did that day and even how COVID influenced your outdoor activities. You also have the option to complete “tick reports” to log your tick encounters; if you submit a clear photo, researchers will respond to you by email with information about the species and life stage. This information can be very helpful for a physician for diagnosis and treatment should anyone begin to feel sick. Lastly, if you allow location services, the app will use your location to provide you with current information on blacklegged tick activity in your area.  Location services also help researchers understand how time spent in different areas is associated with tick exposure.

We at the Detroit Zoo understand the importance of spending time in nature. Hiking, biking and enjoying the outdoors is great for the spirit, and great exercise! Staying informed and aware of the potential risks from ticks and mosquitos will only help you be better prepared as you spend time connecting with the world around you. 

– Ann Duncan is the director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Free Virtual Zoo Camp Has Arrived — Enjoy at Your Own Pace

Virtual Zoo Camp is Calling!

From the stellar Detroit Zoological Society education team that brought you Virtual Vitamin Z lessons during a pandemic, comes Summer Virtual Ventures, free digital programming that gives you the opportunity to enjoy a camp experience from the comfort of your own home.

Summer Virtual Ventures includes exciting animal-related content, expert interviews, hands-on activities and much more.

New virtual camps will be posted weekly through the end of August 2020.

Check out a few of the Summer Virtual Ventures below:

PENGUIN CONSERVATION CHALLENGES
In this icy adventure, learners will take on the role of conservation field workers researching penguins in Antarctica and the Falkland Islands. You’ll work to find creative solutions to the many challenges that accompany fieldwork. Shadow animal care staff and get an exclusive look at what it is like to care for the penguins at the Detroit Zoo.

Adventure Now

AMAZON RAINFOREST CONSERVATION
Wildlife conservationists and scientists need your help! Working in the Amazon rainforest comes with many challenges. Try to solve them while learning more about the animals who live in the rainforest.

Adventure Now

Male Chimpanzee Born at Detroit Zoo in January Successfully Unites with Adoptive Mom

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for five months (and during a pandemic). 

That’s how long the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) animal care staff hand-reared a male chimpanzee born in early January before they successfully transitioned his care to an adoptive chimpanzee mom in June.

“It’s a story of great dedication,” said Scott Carter, chief life sciences officer for the Detroit Zoological Society. “Nights, weekends and through a pandemic — Detroit Zoo primate staff cared for the baby chimpanzee around the clock. And now it’s a very heartwarming story of a baby who has found a devoted, adoptive chimp mom and family.” 

Zane was born on January 7, 2020, to Chiana, 26, who is also the mother of 6-year-old Zuhura. But soon after Zane’s birth, Chiana became very ill and was unable to care for her newborn. Chiana was treated by veterinarians and recovered, but after she recovered, she showed no interest in caring for her little son. The Detroit Zoo’s primate care staff stepped in to give Zane 24-hour care, which included carrying him constantly, as a mother chimp would, and teaching him to take milk from a bottle. 

Over the five months, Zane lived in the Great Apes of Harambee building instead of a nursery so he could be around the other chimpanzees. During this time, the chimpanzees could see him up close through the mesh of their enclosure. 

“Every day, the other chimpanzees could see us caring for him,” said Carter. “He was always near the other chimps even though they physically could not be together.” 

To prepare Zane for life with the other chimpanzees, the Detroit Zoological Society consulted with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan and other zoos that have integrated rejected infants into social groups. The carefully planned process began with observing potential surrogate moms in the Detroit Zoo’s 11-member chimpanzee troop and their responses to Zane. Mother-daughter duo Trixi, 50, and Tanya, 29, both adult females in the troop, showed interest almost immediately.

Photo by Roy Lewis.

“Trixi is a confident and high-ranking matriarch,” said Carter. “She was a wonderful mother to her daughter Tanya, and when we were considering who could be the best new mother for Zane, she stood out. She was very interested in being near him whenever she could and seemed quite taken with him.”  

From their first physical interaction, it was clear that 5-month-old Zane had found his new adoptive family. 

“Zane approached and hugged Trixi and Tanya the minute he had the chance,” said Carter. “Trixi is Zane’s primary caregiver, while Tanya, who has never had a baby of her own, loves playing with Zane, napping with him, and carrying him for short periods.”

Photo by Roy Lewis.

Carter added, “We’re incredibly proud of our devoted primate staff for doing such an amazing job of caring for Zane and preparing him and his new adoptive family to thrive together.”

Baby Zane is now living with the troop at the Great Apes of Harambee at the Detroit Zoo. The chimpanzees who live at the Detroit Zoo have a fission-fusion dynamic, which means they have the freedom to choose who they want to spend their time with at any given moment. As with all animals at the Detroit Zoo, they also have the choice to go where they please in the habitat, so Zane might not always be visible. The multi-acre indoor-outdoor Great Apes of Harambee habitat is home to 12 chimpanzees.

Photo by Jennifer Harte.

Zane’s birth is the result of a recommendation from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan, a cooperative population management and conservation program that helps ensure the sustainability of healthy, genetically diverse and demographically strong captive animal populations. Chimpanzees are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature due to habitat loss, fragmented populations and illegal wildlife trafficking.

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

Detroit Zoological Society Delivers Free Virtual Learning Programs During Pandemic

When we made the decision to temporarily close the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we knew we had to find a way to stay connected with our wonderful community. The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) education team took on the challenge, pivoting to deliver virtual programs.

Since mid-March, our team has produced more than 150 free virtual learning programs to help students, families and lifelong learners continue to explore wildlife conservation, animal welfare, environmental sustainability and humane education.

While we continue to hold lessons on Facebook Live, you can also find the videos on our Virtual Vitamin Z Youtube channel. We also have a new online tool that allows you to search for lessons, including activities, based on grade levels and subjects.

Even though we have since reopened the Detroit Zoo to visitors by reservation, we are still working to reach more of our community through digital means. The DZS education team is also working on Summer Virtual Ventures and producing longer lesson plans for people throughout Michigan.

Check out a sample of some of the team’s virtual learning programs below:

Learn about Partula nodosa snails and how the Detroit Zoological Society brought them back from the brink of extinction. 

Discover what rhinos Jasiri and Tamba were up to during the shutdown.

Visit the penguins in the Penguinarium and learn how water plays a critical role in their well-being.
Did you hear? The black-crowned night herons that roost at the Detroit Zoo are back.
Join David for a Wildlife Adventure Story about zebras. 
Sandy has a sneak peek of our DZS summer programming.

Thank you for all of your support and encouragement. We hope to continue to provide enriching lessons for our community and beyond. 

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