Standing up for Songbirds: How the DZS Supports Bird-Friendly Initiatives  

Photo credit: Kip Kriigel

Authored by Bonnie Van Dam, curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS).

One of the greatest joys of walking outside is listening to the chirps and chatter of songbirds — from the warble of the yellow warbler to the call of the American goldfinch.  

Despite the beauty of their songs, these birds face enormous dangers every day, especially during migration season. Whether it be the reflection of untreated glass windows or the pull of bright city lights, man-made hazards have proved detrimental to local and migrating songbird populations. In this blog, we will explore some of these hazards and what can be done on a legislative, local and personal level to reduce these hazards and stand up for songbirds.  

Photo credit: Patti Truesdell

What are our legislators doing to protect songbirds? 

I recently spoke at a public hearing for Bill B24-0710, which is a Washington, D.C. Council Migratory Local Wildlife Protection Act. This bill would require all new building construction or façade improvements to use bird-friendly materials, like bird-friendly glass, which is specifically designed to make glass a visible obstacle for birds while remaining transparent to humans. A passed bill would also establish a Bird-Friendly Buildings Fund to support building owners as they work to implement these potential changes.  

Untreated, or non-bird-friendly, glass poses a major risk to migratory and local resident birds; between 365 million and one billion birds die each year in the United States when they collide with buildings. This is because the transparency and reflections of untreated glass leaves birds unable to tell the difference between the horizon and a solid building. Birds flying at night may also be attracted to, and therefore confused by, lights inside buildings – which leads to them stopping over, resting and refueling in our cities. Once the birds resume their migration journey, it’s likely they’ll encounter an untimely death after colliding with a glass window. 

These are tragic facts, but legislation like DC Bill B24-0710 can change things. While these types of bills only affect Washington D.C., Illinois, Minnesota and a few other cities nationwide, there are other municipalities looking to enact similar bills into laws as well. Related laws requiring bird-friendly buildings have been passed for New York City, Chicago, Toronto, San Francisco, Portland and other smaller, local jurisdictions – and each one of these acts will save thousands of birds’ lives. As our society continues to construct buildings with glass windows, it is also society’s responsibility to help birds navigate windows, which are silent and invisible hazards to them. 

The DZS uses bird-safe glass on its campuses.

What is the DZS doing to protect songbirds? 

In addition to supporting bills like DC B24-0710, the DZS has been committed to preventing collisions for our local resident and migratory birds for years. Because the state of Michigan has birds migrating from both the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways, the Detroit Zoo’s campus has 24 buildings equipped with bird-safe glass or retrofitted with film, and we’re constantly educating our guests about the importance of bird-safe glass with graphics and flyers.  

The DZS also focuses on collaboration to meet our conservation goals for songbirds. Our commitment to the Detroit Urban Bird Treaty creates bird-friendly environments and provides everyone, especially kids, with opportunities to connect with nature through birding and conservation. This is thanks to collaborative efforts between federal, state and municipal agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations and academic institutions, that  

reduce work to limit hazards to migrating birds, promote community science activities and provide community education and outreach.  

I am a founding member of North American Songbird SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction), an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) conservation program that harnesses the collective strengths of AZA-accredited facilities, alongside other partners, to grow conservation impact and effectively save species. NAS SAFE focuses on more than 300 avian species that migrate through North America to fight population loss that stems from habitat loss, climate change, building collisions and predation from outdoor domestic cats. Our bird collision initiative has gone a long way toward protecting these beautiful birds and setting best practices at the local, state and provincial levels.  

Photo credit: Roy Lewis

What can you do to protect songbirds? 

You don’t have to wait for your city or state to adopt bird-friendly legislation to do your part to keep migrating birds safe! There are plenty of low-cost and low-burden ways to make the glass around you safer for birds, including using bird-safe glass in new construction and treating existing glass with a variety of film products. You can even purchase bird collision prevention products at the Detroit Zoo’s gift shop! 

Additionally, you can: 

• Reduce evening lighting during peak migratory seasons by participating in Lights Out programs 

• Purchase certified Bird Friendly Coffee© to preserve neotropical bird wintering grounds 

• Select grass-fed beef to help save grassland birds 

• Purchase certified sustainable paper products to help preserve the nesting grounds of boreal forest songbirds 

• Participate in native songbird community science projects and Urban Bird Treaty activities in cities 

• Celebrate World Migratory Bird Day  

If we all — individuals, conservation organizations and legislators — work together, we can make a true difference and save the lives of countless migrating songbirds. 

Window decals are a great way to protect birds from building collisions.

‘Otterly’ Amazing: Learning to Care for the Detroit Zoo’s Newest Marine Mammals

It’s the season of sea otters at the Detroit Zoo! Over the coming weeks, Dr. Ann Duncan, director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society, will be sharing updates about two of the Zoo’s newest inhabitants, Ollie and Monte. Read on to learn more about some of our favorite marine mammals!

A year ago, Detroit Zoological Society (DSZ) animal care staff was busy renovating a habitat at the Arctic Ring of Life to become home for two rehabilitated sea otters, female Ollie and male Monte.

As the DZS had not cared for sea otters in the past, the veterinary staff was busy learning about the animals’ unique anatomical and physiological features and medical needs so we could provide the very best care. We reached out to veterinary colleagues experienced in sea otter medicine and were able to take part in online learning opportunities. We also gathered and read the literature describing typical sea otter medical problems and treatment. 

Sea otters Monte and Ollie moved together to the Detroit Zoo in June 2021.

Sea otters have several interesting adaptations, and caring for them is quite different from caring for similar animals, like North American river otters. Sea otters are in the water almost all the time, and when at the surface, they float on their backs. Unlike other marine mammals, sea otters don’t have fat under the skin for insulation. They instead rely on a unique hair coat and high metabolic rate. They have the thickest hair coat of any mammal — more than a million hairs per square inch! The hairs have tiny scales that interlock to form a dense, felt-like barrier that traps air and keeps the skin from becoming wet. This special coat is maintained by fastidious grooming, and when sea otters are not foraging or sleeping, you can usually observe them using their forepaws, flippers and tongues to care for their coat. Without a healthy coat, sea otters will lose heat to the water and cannot survive. When drawing blood, performing surgery or doing ultrasound, we avoid clipping any hair so that there won’t be a window for heat loss. Since the arrival of Monte and Ollie, we have regularly taken images of their hair coats using a thermal camera to look for any areas of irregular heat loss. So far, they have been perfect!

Thermal image of hair coat – Ollie, left side March 10, 2022.

The metabolic rate of sea otters is eight times higher than the standard metabolic rate of similarly-sized terrestrial mammals, and they forage as often as every four hours and eat about 20 to 25 percent of their body weight in food each day. To meet these needs, we feed our sea otters at the zoo six times each day. Digestion of food generates heat and is an important strategy for maintaining body temperature while in cold ocean waters. We analyze the nutrient and energy contents of all the food items we feed to our sea otters and weigh them frequently to make sure they are meeting these high energy demands. 

The amount of food the sea otters eat in one day.

Sea otter skin is very loose, and they have two loose pouches of skin near their arm pits that they can use for storing and carrying food and other items. 

Nasal turbinates increase the surface area for warming inhaled air as it enters sea otters’ bodies.

Sea otters don’t have the best vision, but their eyes are uniquely adapted to allow them to see well both above and below water. Their ability to accommodate in this way is three times higher than reported in any other mammal.  Sea otters close their ears and nostrils when diving. Their noses contain a complex labyrinth of turbinates that serves to increase the surface area for warming inhaled air as it enters the body and allows otters to have an excellent sense of smell. 

Sea otters’ teeth are uniquely designed to scrape food out of the shells of their prey.

Males are larger than females, weighing up to 100 pounds, compared to 75 pounds for females. Their lower incisor teeth are chisel shaped and protrude so they can be used to scrape food out of the shells of their prey. Their molars and premolars are wide and flat, perfectly shaped for crushing hard foods like clams and sea urchins.     

Male sea otter Monte showing off his impressive incisors.

My favorite sea otter adaptation is that they are cute! Sure, from a veterinary perspective, they are interesting, but they are also absolutely adorable. It’s impossible to watch them swim and interact without smiling, and it’s easy to want to do everything possible to help them thrive. All sea otters in human care have a medical condition that jeopardizes their ability to survive in the wild. I am proud of the Detroit Zoo for making a commitment to support the rescue and rehabilitation of stranded or injured sea otters by providing a long-term home for those who cannot be released. While we currently only care for Monte and Ollie, we have the space and resources to offer safe refuge for additional animals when needed in the future. 

Female Ollie was found stranded in Santa Cruz, California in 2010 when she was approximately two weeks old.

Stay tuned for my next blog, where I’ll describe a recent trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium for sea otter medicine boot camp. There, I was trained firsthand how to restrain and perform anesthesia on these beautiful and unique animals.

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

March of the Penguins: Polar Plunging Into Penguin Welfare

This month, the Detroit Zoological Society is bringing you not one, but three blog posts centered around our favorite flippered friends — the penguins who live at the Polk Penguin Conservation Center (read the first and second entry). The facility, which had been closed since 2019 due to waterproofing issues, reopened in February, and we can’t wait to share with you all the stories we have been saving over the past two and a half years.

In our final March of the Penguins entry, learn how animal care staff ensured the flock was thriving while its home was being repaired.

It has been a while since the public has been able to visit the penguins who call the Detroit Zoo home. You might have been wondering – what were the penguins doing during that time? In order to answer that question, staff and dedicated volunteers from the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE) spent nearly every day monitoring the penguins for the last two and half years.

Megan Jones, a research associate for CZAAWE, collects data in the Polk Penguin Conservation Center.

While repairs were being made to the Polk Penguin Conservation Center (PPCC), the penguins returned to their previous habitat, the Penguinarium. Animal care staff went above and beyond to make their extended stay in the Penguinarium more comfortable, including bringing snow into the habitat and even letting the penguins walk around Zoo grounds. The penguins’ move provided us with an interesting opportunity to monitor their transition between habitats and compare how they used their previous space compared to their new home in the PPCC.

The PPCC was designed to give the penguins more opportunities to express natural behaviors. It contains a 326,000-gallon pool, which holds 10 times more water than their previous habitat and is equipped with an adjustable wave machine for the penguins to enjoy. Additional improvements were made while the building was closed for repairs, including adding second snow machine within the habitat, more nesting areas and enhanced lighting.

One of the important roles CZAAWE plays at the Detroit Zoo is monitoring how major habitat modifications impact an animal’s welfare. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums defines animal welfare as an animal’s physical, mental and emotional state over a period of time, which is measured on a continuum from good to poor. Since we can’t ask the penguins what they think about all of the new features, we have to rely on decoding their behavior. CZAAWE staff and volunteers have conducted more than 5,000 observations in order to understand how the new habitat impacts the penguins’ welfare. During every observation, CZAAWE staff and volunteers record several indicators of welfare, including the penguins’ behavior, their location within the habitat and the features of the habitat they are using. Our hope was to see the penguins use a variety of different features and locations within the habitat in addition to engaging in the same natural behaviors as their wild counterparts.

Some penguins explore the grounds while the Zoo is closed. Photo credit: Lauren Brown

We found preliminary results varied between each species. For example, the 25-foot-deep pool in the PPCC was successful in promoting swimming in king penguins, who swam more than 10 times more in the PPCC than in their previous habitat. The macaronis, rockhoppers and gentoos relished their new nesting sites, spending more time engaging in nest building behavior than they did in the Penguinarium. The gentoo penguins began to utilize the elevated nesting sites, a feature they did not use in their previous habitat. Additionally, the chinstraps had the opportunity to discover one of their favorite features of the new habitat – the underwater bubbles! Although we saw many positive signs from the penguins in their new home, CZAAWE’s monitoring revealed that the penguins continued to thrive during their stay in the Penguinarium. They maintained their use of the pool and engaged in a healthy variety of behaviors, which is often considered a positive indicator of welfare.

Arthur, a king penguin residing in the PPCC, enjoys his habitat. Photo credit: Megan Jones

Our research also revealed some patterns regarding the location of each species within their new habitat. The PPCC is split into two sides to emulate the natural habitats of all five species that live at the Detroit Zoo. The southern rockhopper and macaroni penguins, typically found on rocky sub-Antarctic islands, are most likely to be found on the South American side of the habitat when you first walk into the building. The king penguins can be found near the snow piles on the Antarctica side of the habitat, while the gentoos tend to use all parts of the habitat. Our newest residents, the chinstrap penguins, are most likely to be found in the water. Most of the species gravitate toward areas of the habitat that are most similar to their natural habitats!With a new habitat comes new opportunities for both penguins and Detroit Zoo guests! What was once a rare opportunity to see king penguins immersed in the water is now a normal sight at the Penguin Center, and the large viewing windows now make it possible to get nose-to-beak with some of your favorite birds. We are thrilled to welcome you back to enjoy some of the positive benefits that major habitat modifications have had on the penguins at the Detroit Zoo.

Tommy, a gentoo penguin, is observed by researchers. Photo credit: Megan Jones

Megan Jones is a research associate for the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics.

March of the Penguins: A King-sized Bundle of Joy

This month, the Detroit Zoological Society is bringing you not one, but three blog posts centered around our favorite flippered friends — the penguins who live at the Polk Penguin Conservation Center. The facility, which had been closed since 2019 due to waterproofing issues, reopened in February, and we can’t wait to share with you all the stories we have been saving over the past two and a half years.

The Detroit Zoo was very eager to welcome a king penguin chick who hatched in 2020. Even though we have raised many penguin chicks throughout the years, we haven’t raised a king penguin chick in 19 years, so this was truly a “king-sized bundle of joy!”

The rearing of this chick is also an interesting story. During courtship, king penguin pairs form a tight bond, which culminates with the laying of a single egg. Unexpectedly, this was not the case for the parents of this chick. Once the egg was laid, the pair was moved into the rookery with the egg. The rookery is an area within the penguin habitat that provides some separation and privacy while the pair incubates their egg and raises their chick. The female was immediately receptive to the male, lifting her brood patch and showing the male their precious egg. The male appeared receptive initially, but rather than soliciting the egg transfer, he quickly became aggressive towards the female.

Normally, the female will transfer the egg to the male shortly after it is laid, usually within 24 hours. Both will share incubation duties, with the male completing the larger share. We decided to give the male a fake egg for a couple of days, while the female incubated the real egg.  After several days, he proved to be a good egg incubator but was still aggressive towards the female. Once the egg was determined to be fertile, we gave it to the male but knew that we had to develop an alternate plan for rearing this chick. 

Fortunately, another pair whose egg was not fertile met the criteria for becoming foster parents. Egg fostering is a technique we have used in the past with other penguin species, either to give another pair the opportunity to rear a chick or when a pair is not able to rear a chick. The foster male (and the biological male) are actually the last of three king chicks to be reared here 19 years ago. Although the foster male had never raised a chick before, the foster female had raised a couple of chicks previously. In fact, she raised the biological “father” 19 years ago, and therefore is the “grandmother” of this chick!  We initially gave the foster pair a fake egg, and about halfway through the incubation period, we transferred the real egg from the biological male to the foster male.

The average incubation period for king penguin eggs is 54 days. On day 54, we noticed an empty eggshell on the ground near the parents – the chick had hatched! Since then, the male chick has fully grown and was given the name Archie. We love seeing this “royal” bird in the habitat and remembering the special foster story that made it possible.

Come visit Archie and watch this fabulous flock waddle, dive, swim and display other natural behaviors in the Polk Penguin Conservation Center.

Bonnie Van Dam is the curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Welcoming the Great Ape Heart Project with Open Arms!

This photo of chimpanzees Zuhura and Akira was taken by Roy Lewis.

Earlier this month, we announced that the Great Ape Heart Project has officially moved to the Detroit Zoo!

Since 2010, the GAHP has dedicated time to understanding and treating heart disease in great apes. Much like it is for humans, heart disease is the leading cause of death observed among great apes in zoos.

“The Great Ape Heart Project was created to address a specific need in the zoological community,” said Dr. Hayley W. Murphy, director emeritus of the GAHP and executive director/CEO of the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS). “It’s critical to investigate, diagnose and treat heart disease among great apes. The information that comes from this international, multi-institutional project saves lives around the world.”

This photo of gorillas Kongo and Pende was taken by Roy Lewis.

Originally based at Zoo Atlanta, this collaborative project was founded to create a centralized database that analyzes cardiac data, generates reports and coordinates cardiac-related research.

“For more than a decade, the project has maintained a hub for researchers that includes more than 90% of the individual great apes in institutions that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The project allows participants to compare and contrast data from nearly 80 institutions,” said Dr. Marietta Danforth, director of the GAHP. “Prior to this move, Detroit was like a second home for us because we had so many fruitful meetings here at the Zoo. It’s exciting to have it be our home base now.”

The GAHP received the prestigious 2020 Research Award from the AZA. The award recognizes achievements in advancing scientific research among accredited zoos and aquariums throughout the U.S.

In honor of Heart Month, we are selling GAHP shirts here: bonfire.com/GAHP2022. All proceeds will help prevent, diagnose and treat heart disease in great apes. This year’s design features two chimpanzees who live at the Detroit Zoo, Zuhura and Akira

An Enriching Experience: My Time as an Animal Welfare Intern

By Bailey Brocco

What do gorilla hormones, water monitor tongue flicking, penguin swimming duration and aardvark habitat use all have in common? They are all studied by staff at the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE) as indicators of animal welfare! Animal welfare refers to the mental, physical and emotional state of an animal throughout their lifetime. Animals can’t talk to tell us how they’re feeling, but that doesn’t mean they can’t communicate. Just like humans, animals behave differently under different circumstances. There are many non-verbal indicators that animals may use to communicate their needs and well-being. Their posture, eating habits, social interactions, space use, hormone levels and much more can all serve as clues to tell us how they are doing. CZAAWE staff are dedicated to assessing and improving the welfare of all the animals at the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center. My name is Bailey, and I am a senior at Oakland University majoring in biology. This fall, I was fortunate to join CZAAWE as an intern and dive into what it really means to study animal welfare.

At any given time, CZAAWE is conducting research across a number of species. Each project requires its own special training, as different taxa have their own species-specific behaviors used to evaluate their wellbeing. As an intern for CZAAWE, I contributed to multiple ongoing welfare projects. I worked on projects involving aardvarks, gorillas, polar bears, a water monitor, San Esteban Island chuckwallas, penguins and red kangaroos. Each group of animals had their own ethogram, a reference describing their behaviors, which made each study a unique experience. I might record several different behaviors in the span of a minute when observing the aardvarks, but only one behavior within ten minutes for the chuckwallas. Each project varied not just in terms of the behaviors we monitored, but the questions we asked. For the kangaroos, we focused on their interactions with novel enrichment in different areas of the habitat, while we investigated the degree of visibility in the resident chuckwallas.

Solair a water monitor

Even though a study might include an entire group of animals, animal welfare is measured at the individual level. The Detroit Zoological Society’s campuses are home to thousands of animal residents, which means taking each of their individual needs, personalities and behaviors into account. The aardvarks are a great example. Aardvarks are nocturnal animals, so it is difficult to observe them during the day. Instead, we study their behavior using camera footage collected during the night when they are active. I really enjoyed my time watching them because of how different each one is. Baji, the only male in the group, is very social and inquisitive. Roxaane is the oldest female and more laid back. She enjoys sleeping, but she’s also very food driven. What is usual and expected for one individual might be uncommon for another. While observing animal behavior is very important (and fun), it is only one of many ways to assess animal welfare. 

Another important indicator of welfare is hormones. Hormones offer some insight into the physiological state of an individual. There are many ways to measure hormones, but one of the least invasive ways is through the collection of fecal samples. Part of my time here has been spent crushing gorilla and polar bear fecal samples and learning how to extract hormones from them in CZAAWE’s Endocrinology Lab. This state-of-the-art lab is completely dedicated to gathering and processing data on hormones and other biomarkers that offer insight into animal well-being. Although it may not sound very glamorous, being able to analyze fecal samples in a lab is a privilege that not many other zoos have. Using both behavioral and hormonal indicators allows us to paint a more comprehensive picture of animal welfare.

Intern Bailey Brocco

Zoo staff don’t just collect data, they have to process it too. The raw data that is gathered needs to be cleaned and analyzed so it can be used to inform new and beneficial management strategies. In the beginning, cleaning data and organizing it on the computer seemed very daunting to me. However, with some training and practice, I have come to really appreciate this skill. Collecting data is important, but it’s useless if it can’t be analyzed, interpreted and shared. CZAAWE needs to clearly communicate its findings to the many different departments at the Zoo. The ability to concisely organize the data into summaries is just as essential as the rest of work this department performs. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to practice honing these skills.

With new breakthroughs in technology and research, the field of welfare is always growing and evolving. It’s incredibly important to continue to stay up to date on new findings and add to the body of knowledge when we can. CZAAWE has published many of its own studies and findings to contribute to the current knowledge available. Additionally, CZAAWE keeps an online Resource Center, which you can access on their website, full of the most up-to-date research relating to the wellbeing of animals. I spent quite a bit of time searching for new research to add to that database. It was incredible to see the different research people are conducting all over the world in the attempt to learn more about the wonderful animals in our care. 

Every animal is precious, and it is our job to ensure that each and every one of them is not just surviving, but thriving. There is always a lot of work to be done when it comes to ensuring the wellbeing of animals, but welfare scientists work hard to promote the best lives possible for animals. I’m so grateful for the amazing opportunity I was given in interning here at the Detroit Zoo. It has been really eye-opening to see, and participate in, every step of studying welfare. I have a much better understanding of how the process works from conception, to collection and finally to distribution. I have learned so much in the time I’ve spent already, and I’m excited for all the adventures yet to come!            

Learn About the Wolf-Moose Project on Isle Royal

The Detroit Zoological Society’s top-notch education staff are always hard at work creating original lessons and content for students and families in metro Detroit and beyond. DZS educational offerings teach students to have empathy for wildlife while providing science, technology, engineering and math experiences – particularly for students who are underrepresented in or lack equal access to high-quality STEM learning. In one highly-popular six-part DZS offering, students practice science from the perspective of professional conservationists researching moose and wolves on Isle Royale.

Isle Royale is part of an archipelago in Lake Superior, an island ecosystem that supports plant and animal life through harsh winters and mild summers. It is also home to the longest-running research project dedicated to a predator-prey relationship in the world. Called the Wolf-Moose Project, the study has documented and analyzed the moose and wolf populations living on the island since 1958, investigating the complex and dynamic relationships between predators and prey while considering humans’ role in the changing ecosystem. 

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) supports the work on Isle Royale financially and by sending staff to participate in this study through an annual Moosewatch expedition.  DZS-led Moosewatch teams spend just over a week hiking throughout the island to look for Moose that have passed away. If they find one, they will collect specific bones for the study. Analyzing the bones can provide insight into how the moose died – whether from old age, disease, lack of food or predation from wolves. This information is critical to understanding the health of the ecosystem. 

To bring this powerful story to life for school-age youth, DZS educators created a six-module course for middle and high school students. The on-demand, online learning experience addresses science, literacy and math standards through an interrupted case-study model. In this framework, course participants take on the role of a wildlife biologist who has been tasked with examining data, historical information and other evidence to make an assessment of the health of the island ecosystem. 

Photo taken by Jennifer Harte of Renner at the Detroit Zoo.

Drawing on this information, participants make a recommendation to either continue relocating wolves from the mainland to the islands, in an attempt to slow the rapidly growing moose population, or to let the current populations remain as they are, allowing nature to take its course. The experience is designed to help participants consider the perspectives of several key stakeholders, including conservationists, research scientists and the animals themselves. 

After submitting a recommendation for wolf population management, participants can schedule a time to meet with a Detroit Zoological Society staff member, who can answer questions, provide information about the wolves who live at the Detroit Zoo, and share stories about our conservation work. Several staff have participated in the annual Moosewatch program on Isle Royale and can provide first-hand accounts of the island. There is a charge for this virtual meeting with DZS staff, but the rest of the course is free. 

Gray wolves and humans have a long and complicated relationship. Wolves have been portrayed as villains, both in the media and literature, for generations. The reality is that all animals have an important role in their respective ecosystems, and it is our responsibility to find ways to coexist peacefully. The study on Isle Royale has provided a tremendous amount of information that has challenged our knowledge of predator and prey relationships, and how dynamic they are. This course provides an opportunity for students to learn about these relationships on Isle Royale by making use of real data and experiences – and while building critical skills they will need as our future leaders and decision makers.

Launch the course.

– Claire Lannoye-Hall is the director of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.


Polar Bear Cub Development and Welfare: A Team Effort from the Detroit Zoo

This photo of Suka and Astra was taken by Dr. Kylen N. Gartland.

What’s more exciting than a polar bear cub? Two polar bear cubs! The birth of any animal here at the Detroit Zoo is exciting, but polar bears offer special cause for celebration. The Detroit Zoo is proudly home to the Arctic Ring of Life – one of North America’s largest state-of-the-art polar bear habitats. These rambunctious new cubs will grow up exploring the more than 4 acres of outdoor and indoor habitats and are the latest polar bears to call the Detroit Zoo home.

Astra and Laerke were born to mom, Suka, and dad, Nuka, on November 17, 2020. Staff from all over the Zoo watched specially equipped cameras in Suka’s maternity den with bated breath, waiting for the arrival of little Astra and Laerke. Once the cubs made their appearance, it was all hands on deck. Even with expert care, polar bear cubs have a high mortality rate in captivity. With this in mind, the question at the forefront of everyone’s mind was a relatively straightforward one – how do we give these cubs the best shot at long, happy and healthy lives?

Newborn polar bears are blind, thinly haired and weigh only around one pound. Despite being born between November and December, mothers and newborn cubs usually remain in the maternal den until late March or even early April. What happens in those five months is largely unknown. There has been very little long-term monitoring on polar bear cubs due to obstacles such as camera placement and staffing availability, which make observing activity in the maternal den challenging. With the combined efforts of team members with diverse skills and backgrounds, the Detroit Zoological Society has undertaken to monitor and report on the growth and development of Astra and Laerke through their first full year of life. With this project, Detroit Zoological Society staff hope not only to ensure that Astra and Laerke thrive, but also to provide a crucial resource for other zoological institutions around the world endeavoring to rear polar bear cubs.

This photo of Laerke was taken by Dr. Kylen N. Gartland.

In order to pursue this goal, the Detroit Zoological Society staff needed to come up with a plan that would grow and change alongside Astra and Laerke. Additionally, we needed to be able to monitor the well-being of the cubs from multiple perspectives, both physical and emotional. Phase One of this project has been championed largely by the Arctic Ring of Life staff, mammal curators, veterinarians and the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE). Just a few days after birth, Laerke appeared to need extra support. After careful consideration, we made the difficult decision to remove Laerke from Suka’s care and continue rearing her in the veterinary hospital. With staff never more than a radio call away, Laerke spent her first few months growing and thriving in a behind-the-scenes nursery before transitioning to her own living space at the Arctic Ring of Life. During this time, we were able to weigh Laerke, measure her, and monitor milestones in her growth. It is important to establish normal developmental ranges so that veterinary staff can assess the health and well-being of the animals under their care. Data gathered by tracking Laerke’s growth spurts and noting her key developmental milestones will go a long way towards understanding the needs of baby polar bears. Meanwhile, using cameras in the behind-the-scenes maternal den, we were able to observe Suka and Astra 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. While the presence of cameras in zoological settings is not unusual, prolonged 24/7 monitoring certainly is! Detroit Zoological Society staff came together to share this monumental task for a full 12 weeks. Animal care staff watched more than 2,000 hours of recorded video (120,960 minutes!) and gathered invaluable data on mother-cub denning behavior.

With hundreds of hours of video data, scientists from CZAAWE offered to help with data analysis, freeing up animal care staff to focus on the growing needs of the cubs. Using this valuable dataset, we have been able to answer questions critical to early polar bear development. How frequently does a baby polar bear nurse? When does a baby polar bear leave the nest for the first time? What does maternal behavior look like for a polar bear? With recent transitions to live observations, we have been able to watch as the cubs become increasingly confident and exploratory. We continue to work together to provide peak care and ensure excellent welfare for Astra and Laerke as they approach their eighth month. We look forward to keeping you updated on their progress!


– Dr. Kylen N. Gartland is manager of applied animal welfare science for the Detroit Zoological Society.

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 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.