A “Purrfect” Partnership: Collaborative efforts create ideal situations for tiger breeding

Staff with The Detroit Zoo have been working together to monitor Ameliya, an Amur tiger. Photo credit: Jennifer Harte

Authored by Emily Bovee, CZAAWE lab assistant

A little teamwork can go a long way — especially when it comes to caring for the animals who call the Detroit Zoo home. Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE) staff recently teamed up with fellow Zoo employees to ensure two of the Zoo’s feline residents have the best possible opportunity to bring a litter of cubs into the world. 

Amur tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) were the first species to be part of an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plan, a program aimed at supporting the conservation of endangered species by maintaining the genetic diversity of AZA populations. Breeding animals in zoos can be surprisingly challenging, even for the most amorous of Amur tigers! As a solitary species, wild adult Amur tigers generally live alone. Females and males will only meet briefly to mate before parting ways. Tigers living in AZA-accredited zoos are often housed separately, thus the timing of breeding introductions is extremely important. The successful birth of healthy cubs requires some coordination and planning from experts in the field. The last time efforts were made to breed tigers at the Detroit Zoo was in 2003 when healthy cubs were born. 

Team members have been monitoring how Ameliya and Nikolai interact with each other.

Collaborations between different departments at the Detroit Zoo provide staff opportunities to examine the welfare of the animals from new and diverse perspectives. Recently, CZAAWE staff started working with mammal supervisor Melissa Thueme and animal care specialist Sarah Semegen to assist with tiger breeding efforts. The two resident Amur tigers, male Nikolai and female Ameliya, rotate through the public enclosure and a second outdoor tiger yard behind the scenes. 

CZAAWE uses an on-campus endocrinology lab to non-invasively measure indicators of physiological welfare such as hormones — a fancy way of saying we analyze a lot of poop! With the amount of poop collected from animals big and small throughout the Zoo, CZAAWE depends on the intrepid lab volunteers who spend hours crushing samples to prepare them for lab testing. This can include hormones that may indicate changes in reproductive states such as testosterone, estradiol and progesterone. 

Hormone data, along with behavioral observations, can help track Ameliya’s cycles.

Using fecal samples collected by animal care staff from Ameliya, CZAAWE first monitored estradiol, an estrogen hormone involved in the regulation of the estrous cycle. This allowed us to assess if Ameliya had an active cycle and determine the timing of her cycles. The hormone data supplements and confirms animal care staff behavioral observations, which can also be used to track reproductive cycles. Indicators of her estrous cycle included behaviors such as chuffing (an affectionate throaty vocalization!), rubbing on walls and mesh, rolling on the ground, and being friendly toward Nikolai and animal care staff. In only a few days, she can switch from snarling and swatting at Nikolai to chuffing and cheek rubbing! Using a combination of hormonal monitoring and behavioral cues, animal care staff can determine the ideal time for facilitating interactions between Ameliya and Nikolai that are more likely to result in a successful breeding attempt. 

After a potentially successful breeding introduction, the CZAAWE lab staff can shift to monitoring Ameliya’s progesterone levels. Progesterone is a hormone that maintains pregnancy and gets the body ready for and supports a developing fetus. Examining her progesterone levels will allow us to non-invasively detect a possible pregnancy and make sure our care protocols provide excellent support for the mother-to-be. While we are not yet listening for the pitter-patter of tiny tiger paws, we are hopeful that the continued collaboration between animal care staff and CZAAWE will mean healthy tiger cubs in the future.

The collaboration between Zoo departments will help Ameliya and Nikolai be in the ideal situation for potential breeding.

Connecting With Wildlife in an Artful Way

Authored by Ashley Ciricola, curator of fine and performing arts for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS).

The Detroit Zoo is home to many mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates. But did you know the Zoo is also home to a variety of paintings, sculptures, photographs and other pieces of art?

November 9 happens to be National Go to an Art Museum Day, and we want to shine a deserving light on the the Detroit Zoological Society’s permanent art collection. Read on to learn more about these pieces and see why visitors of all ages should add an art tour to their next Zoo trip. 

Since 1995, the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery at the Detroit Zoo has been a designated space to display the permanent art collection, supporting the DZS’ mission by creating meaningful connections between people, animals and the natural world. The cultural and artistic diversity of our permanent art collection encourages guests to consider and compare the varied relationships between humans and animals across different cultures and times. 

The universal language of art is a pathway to start or continue discussions about conservation and sustainability topics within our community, and whether you are interested in local artists or ancient artifacts, the permanent art collection at the Detroit Zoo has a little something for everyone. Here are a few of the collections that are currently on display: 

But the beauty isn’t just limited to the indoors; in fact, the collection continues as you venture throughout the Zoo grounds. There are many unique pieces to see, from vibrant Pewabic tile mosaics to bronze animal statues that are at hug level for our smallest art aficionados to enjoy.  

Wherever you are in the Zoo, there is likely a meaningful piece of art that is nearby and waiting for you to explore! Plan your next trip to the Detroit Zoo and see it all for yourself – visit www.detroitzoo.org today to purchase your tickets.

Flower Power: Detroit Zoological Society Joins Sunflower Hidden Disabilities Program 

Dr. De’Andrea Matthews is the vice president of diversity and community engagement at the Detroit Zoological Society.

Authored by Dr. De’Andrea Matthews, vice president of diversity and community engagement at the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS). 

On your next visit to the Detroit Zoo or Belle Isle Nature Center, you might see a few more sunflowers than you would normally expect.  

That’s because the DZS is now a member of the Sunflower Hidden Disabilities Program. We strongly believe this membership will amplify our support for individuals living with hidden disabilities. 

Guests at the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center who have hidden physical, mental or neurological disabilities may now discretely indicate any needed support or assistance during their experience at the Zoo or Nature Center. Our staff will in-turn, and upon request, provide a Sunflower pin, lanyard or bracelet to guests to reaffirm that assistance is available whenever they need it.  

We are always seeking to be inclusive and continue to improve how we give our guests with disabilities the best possible experience. With programs like the Sunflower Hidden Disabilities Program, we can enhance what we offer to the communities we serve. It’s important to remember the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center are inclusive spaces for all; we don’t just serve able-bodied individuals. Many of our guests experience hidden disabilities, and this program is a wonderful tool to offer them. 

Sunflower Hidden Disabilities Program products allow guests to discretely indicate that they have a hidden disability.

Since establishing itself in the United Kingdom in 2016, the Sunflower Hidden Disabilities Program has grown into a global movement. Program officials estimate 80 percent of all disabilities are hidden — making the Sunflower an important, recognizable symbol to destigmatize hidden disabilities and offer support when needed.  

The Detroit Zoo is the first zoo in the state of Michigan to participate in the program. We’re hopeful our participation will spark an interest in the Sunflower Hidden Disabilities Program throughout Metro Detroit and beyond. 

The majority of the time, when we think about disability, we think about things we can see. But when hidden disabilities make up the majority, we don’t necessarily know when someone needs additional assistance, patience or understanding. By taking part in this program, the DZS will bring more awareness to hidden disabilities and lead the way for other organizations to do the same. 

We’re so pleased to be a part of this program, and we can’t wait to see the good that comes out of it. 

To learn more about the DZS’s diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility work, visit detroitzoo.org.  

Sunflower products include lanyards, bracelets, pins and more.