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.

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.

Join us in congratulating our CEO, Dr. Hayley Murphy, on her Selection to a Prestigious Leadership Program!

The Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) top leader, Dr. Hayley Murphy, is ready to take her leadership skills to the next level.

Hayley has served as our executive director and chief executive officer since November 2021  and was recently honored by the Detroit Regional Chamber as one of the newest members of its Leadership Detroit program. Launched in 1979, Leadership Detroit is an eight-month transformational leadership program designed to challenge emerging and existing community leaders from southeast Michigan to bring about positive change. The program also aims to create awareness of key issues that affect the Detroit region. 

“I’m honored and humbled to be named a member of the newest class of the Leadership Detroit program,” Hayley says. “I’m committed to taking my leadership to the next level, challenging my previous assumptions and building relationships with the exceptional men and women who I call classmates.” 

As a member of the 43rd class of this program, Hayley is among 70 regional executives who represent a cross-section of the community, including business, organized labor, government, education, media, civic groups, health services and community organizations. After completing the program, she will join more than 2,000 colleagues who call themselves alumni of Leadership Detroit. 

“Leadership Detroit offers a unique experience that takes leaders on a journey out of their comfort zones to challenge long-held assumptions and to embrace multiple and diverse perspectives on quality-of-life issues in the Detroit region,” says Devon O’Reilly, the program’s senior director of community engagement and leadership development. “Through carefully curated sessions and experiences throughout the year, this class will have an opportunity to better connect with each other, hear directly from key regional leaders across multiple sectors, and enhance their intangible skills that will help them shape this region’s future in their positions of leadership.”

Hayley’s new involvement with Leadership Detroit is just one of the many programs she is affiliated with. She is the founder and director emeritus of the Great Ape Heart Project, an international, multi-institutional effort aimed at investigating, diagnosing and treating heart disease in great apes. She is also a veterinary advisor to the Gorilla Species Survival Plan and the Great Ape Taxonomic Advisory Group. Hayley also serves as the chair of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Ethics Board and as a board member for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.  

“I couldn’t be more excited to extend my professional development and community involvement through the Leadership Detroit program,” Hayley adds. “I’m ready to dive deep into Detroit and its history, gain new insights into leadership theory and practice, and apply what I learn at the DZS.”

Join all of us at the DZS in offering Hayley a big congratulations!

Detroit Zoo Welcomes Nearly 100 Bird Species During Spring Migration

Throughout spring migration, the Detroit Zoo’s 125 acres provided refuge to many weary travelers. Now that the season is coming to a close, our staff is looking back at all the feathered friends who used our grounds as a stop on their journeys.

Read more about migration season and how you can help birds arrive at their destinations safely.

Blackpoll warbler

Over the last couple months, Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) team members have spent many hours surveying what bird species have been utilizing the habitats here at the Detroit Zoo. Some of these species live here year-round, while many species have shown up during migration and will spend the summer here breeding on Zoo grounds. Additionally, several species have used the Zoo to rest or refuel for a matter of hours or days on a long journey home to their breeding grounds.

We have seen and heard many species of songbirds, black-crowned night herons, a redhead, spotted sandpipers and much more! From March until the end of May, we accumulated at least 93 species on Zoo grounds.

Canada warbler

The incredible journeys these brave travelers make every year are hard to put into words. Many winter as far south as Central or South America and may head far north of us into the Upper Peninsula or northern Canada to breed. The blackpoll warbler is one of these extraordinary migrants who recharged at the Zoo this May. This tiny, insectivorous species only weighs around 11 grams and sings a very high-pitched song. They often travel more than 10,000 miles round trip — including an Atlantic Ocean crossing — as they head back and forth from South America to northern Canada and Alaska. 

Migrating birds overcome extreme challenges when heading back and forth between breeding and wintering grounds. Besides exhaustion and native predators, there are many human-made challenges.  Fragmented habitats, light pollution, domestic cats and windows are just some of the man-made threats that make migration even harder. Here at the Detroit Zoo, we are proud to provide these birds an excellent, protected habitat on their perilous journeys.

Learn how you can help reduce light pollution and save birds’ lives.

— Matt Porter is a member of the DZS birds animal care staff.

Flying High: Celebrating World Migratory Bird Day

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, not Christmas — bird migration season! It’s the time of year when birds who left Michigan during the winter months to find refuge in warmer states make their triumphant return. Look outside, and you are likely to see robins, Canada geese and sandhill cranes among the birds flying in the spring Michigan skies, happy to be back after a cold winter away.

American robin, Jennifer Harte

While everyone at the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) celebrates these birds every day, we are encouraging the public to join us in celebrating and raising awareness around the conservation of local species on World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) May 14.

WMBD, formerly International Migratory Bird Day, is an annual campaign highlighting the need for the conservation of migratory birds and their habitats. Through a collaboration of festivals and events from partners across the globe, WMBD brings awareness to the threats migratory birds face, as well as the birds’ ecological importance and the need for bird conservation.

Sandhill crane, Patti Truesdell

While all aspects of bird conservation are important, this year the organizations behind WMBD are focusing on fighting light pollution and harm it can cause to migratory birds.

Light pollution, or the inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light, affects our world in numerous ways, from limiting our view of the night sky to disrupting human sleep patterns. However, light pollution’s most devastating impacts are felt by wildlife — and migratory birds are no exception.

Most birds migrate at night due to the calm skies and lack of predators. These birds use the moon and stars to guide their way — a system that has worked for eons. However, with light pollution encroaching further and further along the night sky (at a rate of increase of at least 2 percent per year, according to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Institute), migratory birds’ journeys are becoming increasingly dangerous. Read our recent blog post to learn more about light pollution and how to mitigate its effects on local wildlife.

When artificial lights from nearby cities enter the night sky, migrating birds can become distracted and veer off course into threatening territory. When distracted by light pollution, birds become more likely to land in dangerous areas, where they are prone to collisions and vulnerable to unfamiliar predators.

One of the biggest dangers presented to birds drawn into urban areas impacted by light pollution is needlessly illuminated office buildings. According to the International Dark Sky Association, millions of birds in the United States die each year by colliding with empty office buildings and towers that are lit up at night. Additionally, light pollution impacts migration patterns, confusing and disrupting mating and feeding schedules.

Canada geese returning to summer in Michigan.

All of this information paints a bleak portrait for the future of the feathered fowl who migrate across the U.S., but don’t lose hope! There are things each and every one of us can do to help local birds travel safely.

• First, turn off your lights at night. Unused lights, particular in unused office buildings, present a great danger to traveling fowl.

• Second, make the switch to shielded outdoor lighting. Outdoor lighting should be shielded and directed downward, where it can illuminate the ground rather than contaminate the night sky.

• Third, research and follow bird-safe habits that help reduce the hazards birds face during the migration process. In addition to turning lights off at night, these practices can include installing screens, decorative window film or window art to help prevent birds from hitting glass; moving feeders as close to windows as possible and bleaching bird feeders once a month; and practicing green gardening by growing native plants and avoiding insecticides.

Window decals can be added to increase visibility and reduce bird-strike.

The DZS has long been a supporter and practitioner of bird-safe initiatives. In 2017, we made it official by partnering with the Metro Detroit Nature Network, now known as SEMI Wild, which signed the Urban Conservation Treaty for Migratory Birds, designating Metro Detroit an Urban Bird Treaty area. Among other things, the treaty promotes bird conservation through Lights Out programs. Now, five years later, we are proud to promote these Lights Out programs, which encourage organizations and individuals to turn off or reduce interior and exterior lights during spring and fall migration, in honor of WMBD.

While there is much to be done to provide our feathered friends with safe travels this migration season, know that you can play a part by turning off one light at a time.

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

Amazon Rainforest Conservation Partnership Helps Rural Communities

In March 2020, my suitcases were packed, and a group of 40 volunteers was ready to fly down to Iquitos, Peru to deliver school supplies to remote communities along the Amazon and Napo rivers in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest. 

Three days before my flight, Peru closed its borders in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.  The Peruvian school year starts in March, so schools didn’t open for months, and even then classes were hosted only virtually. This provided an opportunity for many of the students who lived in cities to attend but left behind the communities on the river, which had no devices or access to the internet. For two full years, Adopt-a-School community partners had no access to formal education. Even more devastating than the education gap, Peru holds the highest rate of COVID-19 fatalities out of any country in the world. 

This year, as I packed my bags again, I couldn’t help but wonder if we would be able to travel. With new variants being identified regularly, I was very conscious of the responsibility that comes with international travel. I needed to keep myself and  the communities we would be visiting healthy, as well as my family when I returned home. I took extra precautions, including wearing an N95 mask the entire time I was traveling through airports and on planes. As health care workers know all too well, wearing an N95 mask for 24 hours straight is challenging and not comfortable! 

When I arrived in Iquitos, I met with our partners at Conservación de la Naturaleza Amazónica del Peru AC (known as CONAPAC), the Peruvian nonprofit that facilitates the Adopt-a-School program and several other important projects in the rainforest. A small group of volunteers that had been scheduled for the 2020 trip joined us for the school supply deliveries. We reviewed our ambitious schedule of visiting nine schools each day for five straight days and packed all the school supplies onboard the cargo boat that would be traveling with us on the river. 

We traveled out to the farthest of Amazon Explorama’s lodges, Explor Napo, and settled in for the three nights we’d be staying there. On Monday morning, we packed our lunches, divided into three groups and headed out on the river. Each of the three boats had three to four  people aboard, plus the boat driver. The rides to the schools vary, from as little as 15 minutes to sometimes more than an hour. I was visiting one of the largest communities that first morning, and we spent about 45 minutes on the boat until we arrived at Urco Miraño. 

We spent several hours in the community, distributing a school supply packet to every kindergarten, elementary and high school student (more than 100 all together!), and their teachers. We also delivered supplies for the schools in general and notebooks for the community leaders. Access to quality learning materials is an equity issue. Most families living in rainforest communities don’t have easy access to cities to purchase materials, nor do they always have the financial means to do so. While the Peruvian government provides a school building and teachers, the gap in learning materials puts the remote communities at a distinct disadvantage from their peers in cities. Living in one of the world’s most biodiverse and ecologically important areas makes access to a quality education imperative to the future of the region. 

The process of traveling to communities and sharing school supplies repeated throughout the week. Toward the end of their school year (likely in September), we will reach out to all the teachers in the communities to ask what supplies they need for their classroom. That way, we can tailor the 2023 delivery to their needs. All the materials are purchased in Peru, which supports the local economy, ensures materials fit with local curriculum guidelines and drastically reduces shipping and customs fees. The supplies are purchased with donations from an international group of donors, many of whom have traveled to the rainforest previously. If you would like to support the Adopt-a-School program, ensuring access to educational opportunities in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, please visit our website for more information. 

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

An Evening of Learning and Bonding for Families in Need

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all struggled to grasp the new normal. It has brought new challenges and complicated old ones, yet we continue to push through. The pandemic is especially challenging for people already facing extremely stressful situations, like homelessness and domestic violence. Research indicates that even short respites of spending time in a safe, enjoyable experience can provide much needed relief and reprieve. 

This year, the Detroit Zoological Society hosted several private programs called Nocturnal Adventures. These evening programs catered to more than 270 individuals who are dealing with significant hardship. This positive experience is provided through our partnerships with HAVEN, Turning Point, First Step, the Coalition on Temporary Shelter and the Macomb County Rotating Emergency Shelter Team. The program includes transportation to and from the Detroit Zoo, dinner, a guided evening tour of the Zoo and an education program that focuses on the stories of rescued animals who have found sanctuary at the Detroit Zoo. 

The evening starts with dinner. The meal is shared between the DZS staff, volunteers and our guests. This community building aspect is an opportunity to get to know each other while sharing a meal. We all have more in common than we may first assume and the conversations that evolve are both heartwarming and enjoyable. 

The tour that follows is led by DZS volunteers and education staff. As they lead guests through the Zoo, they share stories of the animals who have found sanctuary after challenging experiences. Many of the animals have suffered injuries in the wild and can no longer survive on their own without human care. Some have come from private ownership where proper care or habitat space was not available. As a result, the animals required urgent intervention and oftentimes specialized care. They are stories of new beginnings and hope.  

Toward the end of the evening, a craft activity provides all participants the opportunity to choose two plants and to decorate a pot for each. The participants can choose to keep and care for both, or to give one to someone. Caring for another living thing and giving are both learned skills. Regularly being on the receiving end of care and support can be taxing on a person, which makes having the opportunity to give or care for something an important element. Taking care of a plant also reinforces that an individual’s choices and actions matter. If the plant isn’t cared for in a manner that meets its basic needs, the plant won’t survive. However, if thoughtfully tended to, the plant will thrive. 

The evenings conclude with the opportunity for participants, staff and volunteers to make s’mores together over a fire pit. This simple, albeit sticky and sweet, ending is a chance to reflect on the evening, share a few more stories and look forward to new beginnings. 

The programs are made possible by dedicated funding from the Detroit Zoological Society and generous donations from the Kellogg Foundation and the Butzel Long Law Firm, an institution deeply involved in Detroit and southeast Michigan for more than 165 years.   

In addition to their financial support, volunteers from Butzel Long had the opportunity to help at a recent event. “We are very happy to have partnered with the Detroit Zoo on the Nocturnal Adventures program. It is our pleasure and honor to give back to our communities, to partner with great institutions like the Detroit Zoo and to do our small part to help those who need it,” said Paul Mersino, attorney and counselor of Butzel Long Law Firm.To support the Detroit Zoological Society’s commitment to providing educational programs for the community, visit detroitzoo.org/support/give/detroit-zoo-fund/.

– Claire Lannoye-Hall is the director of education and D’Nae Hearn is an education specialist for the Detroit Zoological Society.

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.