Habitat Expansions Benefit Animal Welfare

You may have noticed some changes at the Detroit Zoo recently, with construction occurring at many animal habitats. We recently unveiled the expansion of the Edward Mardigian Sr. River Otter Habitat, which tripled the outdoor space available to the North American river otters, complete with a flowing stream and a sandy beach. We’ve also been working on improving the giraffe habitat by adding much needed additional outdoor space and doubling the size of the indoor area. This past spring, Homer the Hoffman’s two-toed sloth moved to newly remodeled digs near the rhinos, and we’re currently renovating his former home in the National Amphibian Conservation Center to provide a more spacious habitat for the Japanese giant salamanders.

Sometimes, as was the case with the Polk Penguin Conservation Center and the Cotton Family Wolf Wilderness, we have the ability to design and build new habitats from the ground up. In other instances, we are able to take habitats that already contain many features that benefit the animals and expand upon them to provide even more space and complexity. In both situations, we begin with the knowledge we have about individual animals and how they interact with their environments.

For example, we know that otters are semi-aquatic. Staff at the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare have observed the animals engaged in a variety of water-related behaviors. When it came time to design the expansion of their habitat, it was very important that we incorporate features that would enable them to enjoy the water even more. It’s easy to see how much time they spend in the new stream, now making the most of both deep and shallow areas of water. And the island portion of the habitat enhances their opportunities to interact with various substrates and amplifies the overall complexity of their space.

As we move forward, we will continue to improve the habitats we provide for the animals that call the Detroit Zoo home, ensuring that they are stimulating and naturalistic. We are always a work in progress, keeping the welfare of the animals as our top priority. Up next are the tigers and several species of reptiles in the Holden Reptile Conservation Center. As we continue to learn about and understand the needs of the animals in our care – both the individuals and the species – we can make better choices that result in great spaces for them to live in.

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

Uncovering Turtle Personalities

Several years ago, we developed a project through the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) Center for Zoo Animal Welfare to determine if we could identify specific personality traits in Blanding’s turtles. That’s right – turtles! Personality has been linked to survivorship in a number of species, and as the DZS is actively involved in conservation efforts with the Blanding’s turtle – a species of special concern in the state of Michigan – we wanted to learn more. Two personality traits emerged from our research: aggressiveness and exploration, with individuals ranging from low to high in either category. We also discovered that a connection exists between these traits and how Blanding’s turtles fare in the wild.

Researchers have been monitoring the population of Blanding’s turtles in Michigan for several years and making efforts to ensure their numbers don’t drop any further. Female Blanding’s turtles typically lay eggs this time of year, and they often travel rather long distances to find suitable nesting grounds. This certainly puts them at risk, especially as road mortality is one of the major threats they face. When baby turtles hatch, they must find their way back to water, which leaves them vulnerable to predation. The DZS became involved in a head-starting program for this species in 2011. This means that eggs are incubated at the Detroit Zoo and the hatchlings are allowed to grow up safely until they reach a certain size, at which point they are released back into the wild.

We used a series of behavioral tests to uncover specific personality traits, including what is often referred to as the mirror test. A mirror is placed in the testing space and the turtle can choose to approach it and to interact with it. As amazing as turtles are, they cannot recognize themselves in a mirror and hence perceive their reflection to be another turtle. By examining their reaction, we definitely saw each turtle as an individual. Some were reluctant to approach, some were uninterested, some were trying to interact gently, and some were very adamant that there was only room for one turtle in the pond!

Once we identified the personality traits, we wanted to understand what links there may be between personality and the turtles’ behavior and survival once released into their natural habitat. Field researchers from the University of Michigan-Flint tracked the turtles post-release for two years and shared their data with us.

Based on our analyses, turtles that demonstrated high exploration had better survival rates than those who scored low in exploration. During the first year, turtles that were more aggressive traveled further from their release site, but over the entire course of the tracking period, turtles that were more exploratory traveled the most. Turtles that were rated as more aggressive and exploratory were found basking more often. Turtles will rest in the sun to help thermoregulate. This helps them to be more energetically efficient, but being exposed may put them at higher risk of predation. The different personalities therefore behave in different ways that amount to a trade-off in risks and benefits.

Finally, all turtles, regardless of personality, showed a distinct preference for areas vegetated with cattails. Given this demonstrated preference, we now know that this type of habitat might really benefit turtles in future releases.

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

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.

Animal Welfare: Ensuring the Well-Being of Senior Animals

It’s a fact of life: With every day that passes, humans and animals get older. And just like humans, as animals go through life, maturing from infants to older adults, their needs change.

Animals living in accredited zoos and aquariums have constant access to resources such as food and veterinary care. They also don’t face predatory pressures as they would in the wild and as a result, they can live very long lives – far longer than they would in the wild. As zoos continue to evolve, so has our understanding of what it means to care for aging animals. Careful monitoring of their health and any physical limitations that may challenge them as they grow older allows us to make adjustments as necessary.

Older animals may not be able to move around as easily as they once did. We may therefore need to modify their physical surroundings to ensure their ability to use their space fully. Advances in veterinary science mean that we can treat any concerns that arise – and in some cases, act proactively to prevent them. Just as some of us may be providing supplements to older cats and dogs sharing our homes, similar measures are also available to treat age-related ailments of animals living in zoos. For example, animals can develop cataracts; several of the crested penguins living at the Detroit Zoo have undergone surgery to address their visual impairments. This has allowed them to better navigate through their wonderful new home at the Polk Penguin Conservation Center and to more fully interact with the other penguins.

Zoos have a profound responsibility to all of the animals in their care, including a commitment to ensuring great lifelong welfare. The staff at the Detroit Zoo care for and about each individual animal, through every stage in their lives. As we celebrate Senior Day on April 26, we honor both our human and animal friends in their golden years. For the animals at the Detroit Zoo, this includes Kintla, a 33-year-old grizzly bear; Bubbles, a 46-year-old chimpanzee; Knick-Knack and Giovanni, 23-year-old miniature donkeys; Homer, a 25-year-old Hoffman’s two-toed sloth; and Lily, a 26-year-old Przewalski’s horse.

Stephanie Allard, Ph.D., is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

Animal Welfare – Understanding the Needs of Amphibians

The penguins living at the Polk Penguin Conservation Center are not the only water-dependent species being studied by the Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare (CZAW). We are conducting research to uncover indicators of welfare in frogs, toads and salamanders living at the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center.

Welfare indicators in amphibian species have largely consisted of body condition scoring and measures of reproductive success, neither of which provide comprehensive understanding of how individual animals are faring. Identifying additional indicators can help us to better understand the needs of amphibians living in zoos.

Due to the catastrophic declines in amphibian populations around the world in recent years, amphibian conservation has become a priority for zoos and other conservation organizations. While many institutions prioritize the management of captive populations of amphibians as one strategy in the preservation of these species, virtually no literature exists today regarding how the captive representatives of rapidly vanishing amphibians are faring. The Detroit Zoological Society created the National Amphibian Conservation Center nearly two decades ago, and it is still the largest facility dedicated to amphibian conservation and care in the world. CZAW is now conducting studies to help understand the individual preferences and behavioral and physiological responses of these animals to captive environments and husbandry practices, as well as individual capacities for coping with stressors of captive environments.

Housing animals in multi-species habitats is a common practice in zoos and aquariums. Some amphibians however, such as poison dart frog species, may be housed together due to their shared environmental requirements and their conspicuous aesthetics. Little research has been conducted on the impact that mixed-species living has on the welfare of the individuals. At CZAW, we have examined how different species partition their habitat and how their behavior may be impacted by one another. This helps us ensure that the needs of each animal are being met.

While much emphasis has been placed on the impacts of captivity on the welfare of large mammals, little attention has been granted to large amphibians living in the care of humans. Japanese giant salamanders are currently listed as Near Threatened by the International Union of Conservation of Nature and their wild numbers are decreasing due to habitat loss and hunting.

These salamanders present a unique challenge when it comes to habitat design, given their potential to grow up to 1.5 meters in length and their nocturnal activity patterns. Traditional ways of housing amphibians may not be as successful for giant salamanders and in turn may impact their welfare. The Immersion Gallery at the amphibian center is being renovated as a new habitat for the Japanese giant salamanders, with the goal of giving the animals increased physical and social choices. We are also developing a project to assess the ways in which this increase in choice can improve the welfare of the individual salamanders.

As we continue to study how amphibians can thrive in zoos, we not only help the individuals, but we can also contribute to the efforts being made to conserve them. Greater understanding of how individual captive amphibians are faring is critical to ensuring their well-being and to meeting ethical obligations of keeping animals in captivity.

Stephanie Allard, Ph.D., is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

Animal Welfare: A Brown Bear’s Journey

This month, we are celebrating the 20th birthday of Polly, a Syrian brown bear who was rescued and found sanctuary at the Detroit Zoo when she was young. She arrived in September of 2000 after spending the first three-and-a-half years of her life in deplorable conditions. Polly was born at a private breeder’s facility in Virginia in 1997. When she was 4 months old, she was sold to a roadside circus on the East Coast that already had a small menagerie of other animals. When she became too big to handle, Polly was relegated to a small cage with a large, hamster-like performance wheel where she rocked back and forth incessantly.

Several complaints from disturbed circus visitors concerned about the bear’s living conditions prompted PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) to try to secure her freedom. After months of negotiations, PETA was successful in convincing the circus owner to relinquish the bear. The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) accepted PETA’s request to provide a new home for Polly, providing her with the chance to finally experience an environment in which her welfare was of the utmost importance.

After all these years in a safe and stimulating environment, cared for by dedicated DZS staff members, Polly still demonstrates some of the unnatural, stereotypic behaviors she developed living in a small cage, despite being in an environment that is much larger and more suitably complex and stimulating. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see animals continue to demonstrate such behaviors even after they are removed from the conditions that caused the behaviors in the first place.  These “behavioral scars” are not a reflection of current conditions, but rather of past traumatic experiences that forever alter an animal’s behavior and life. DZS staff members monitor Polly closely, as they do all of the animals, and use positive reinforcement training and environmental enrichment, as well as allowing her to exercise as much choice and control over her environment as possible to provide her with a safe and comfortable home that meets her physical, behavioral and emotional needs.

Polly reminds us that animals which are forced to perform for human entertainment in circuses and other “shows”, are usually harmed in the process of their training or their living conditions, and often irreparably. All animals deserve to live in environments in which they can thrive, not just survive, and once they are scarred, they often can never be fully healed, despite the great care sanctuaries, like the Detroit Zoo, provide them.

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

Animal Welfare: Hormone Studies in the Endocrinology Lab

The Detroit Zoo’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare (CZAW) undertakes studies to find innovative and non-invasive means to evaluate how animals are faring. There are a variety of ways to do this, including looking at hormone levels, as they can reflect the internal state of an animal. Hormones control most major bodily functions, including complex systems such as emotional response. We are able to study the hormones of animals at the Detroit Zoo in our endocrinology lab; Dr. Grace Fuller, the Detroit Zoological Society’s manager of applied animal welfare science, is responsible for the work that is done here.

Oxytocin is a hormone that has the potential to tell us a lot about how animals are responding to their social environment. While commonly referenced for its role in a mother bonding with an offspring, oxytocin is involved in bonding in many social settings. It has been studied in a variety of species, including humans. One of the great things about this type of biological marker is that we can measure it in materials such as saliva and urine. This means we can obtain samples more easily, without impacting the animals in a potentially negative way, as might be the case if we had to restrain an animal to obtain a blood sample.

We have collected saliva and urine samples from the giraffes living at the Zoo to explore how social interactions might be having an effect on them. Dr. Fuller has validated (a process necessary to prove that we are indeed measuring what we think we are) our ability to detect levels of oxytocin in both types of samples, and is now looking at how levels correlate with different social situations, including changes to group composition and visitor interactions.

We look forward to sharing the results of this important work as we move forward.

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