The Best Part of the Belle Isle Nature Center is Back!

Authored by Amy Greene, nature centers director for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS).

The Belle Isle Nature Center reopened in fall 2022 with a whole new interior designed to connect people of all ages with local flora and fauna. It has been thrilling to be open again! As we roll into the winter season, let’s take some time to reflect on the past few months and appreciate our greatest feature — our guests!

Having guests in our building has brought the heart and soul back into the Nature Center. Of course, part of the rhythm of that heartbeat includes the amazing animals, their caregivers and the rest of the staff, but it has truly been a joy to see people exploring the new exhibits and habitats. During the first two days we opened, the golf course across the road hosted a Special Olympics event for the Detroit Public Schools Community District, and we had the serendipitous opportunity to host 600 children immediately upon reopening. It brought tears to my eyes to see kids learning, exploring and belonging in the natural world. 

It is truly all about connections — our older visitors, who are well beyond school-aged, will often come across one of the habitats featuring local wildlife, turn to someone and share an anecdote that starts with “I remember…!” Hearing stories of how people used to sit on a dock and look for water snakes or turn over leaves to find frogs reinforces the connections between past and present, nature and human. Every day, I look forward to reading the responses people leave on our community feedback wall that detail their personal connections to where they find nature in their own neighborhoods. Hand-written and hand-drawn notes share experiences about squirrels, groundhogs, butterflies, birds, trees and weeds in backyards, schoolyards, parks and places people visit.

Tunnels connect things, too!

It has been exciting to observe people of all ages explore the many tunnels here at the Nature Center. The Young Learner Space features an exploration through an ant or worm tunnel, right down under the crack of a sidewalk. What can you find in there that is part of nature? What did humans leave behind? Can you store food, dig tunnels and spend some time in part of our everyday environment that is often unnoticed yet crucially important? The tunnel under the treefrog habitat offers yet another interesting perspective, as guests can pop up into acrylic “bubbles” right in the habitat for an insider’s view. The space is also home to a replica Detroit sewer tunnel, which offers a walk-through experience showcasing how animals adapt to living in spaces with human infrastructure and how our actions, like keeping trash clear from drains, can have an impact.

Through the tunnels, hallways and habitats, the focus on shared spaces and connection to place-based nature is apparent. Each mural at the Belle Isle Nature Center represents an actual location where those species of animals were spotted in the city of Detroit. It is a powerful feeling to see our guests interact with the features here that provide opportunities to explore their own power and place in the natural world. These exhibits help our guests recognize their impact and belonging as individuals who share their space with other living things.

In the last three months, more than 18,000 people have already visited the Belle Isle Nature Center — that’s a lot of connections!  After the long, quiet days of the pandemic closure, and the loud and bustling days of the renovation construction, this everyday simplicity — hearing all those footsteps through the hallways, exclamations of awe, the buzz of childhood questions and the curious conversations about connection to the spaces we share with wildlife and wild places – is truly the beat that keeps our pulse pumping. It’s the best part of the Belle Isle Nature Center!

Ready to experience it for yourself?

Visit us any day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. – the Belle Isle Nature Center and its programs are free! With unpredictable winter weather, the nature center provides a climate-controlled oasis where you can still get that great outdoor feeling. The cozy stone fireplace and birdwatching window are fan favorites this time of year. You can also embrace the cold and join us for Winterfest from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 28. Guests will have the opportunity to trek through the trails on snowshoes, make a feeder to care for birds in the winter, learn about animal adaptations and winter survival, and much more. Night owls will also enjoy our monthly Nature at Night series that features different native nocturnal species. This Friday, Jan. 20, local partners from the DNR Outdoor Adventure Center and Detroit Audubon will be on-site with fun activities, such as a guided hike to search of owls, followed by an outdoor fire to warm you up. Follow our Facebook page to stay connected with us and your fellow nature lovers. Just like the seasons, there is always something new to experience at the Belle Isle Nature Center.

DZS Partners With Mittens for Detroit to Give Back This Holiday Season

‘Tis the season for giving!  

While we’ve been making the holidays bright with our annual Wild Lights event, a celebration featuring millions of twinkling lights decorating the Detroit Zoo, we know the season wouldn’t be complete without gifting something back to our community. That’s why we are partnering with Mittens for Detroit all Wild Lights long!  

Mittens for Detroit is a local nonprofit that collects new, warm mittens and gloves for families in need. The items are then distributed through schools, veterans’ groups, senior centers, shelters, medical facilities and other like organizations. Since establishing itself in 2010, the organization has delivered more than a quarter million pairs of gloves and mittens to children, teens and adults in Detroit, Hamtramck, Highland Park, Dearborn and Pontiac.  

The Detroit Zoological Society is proud to again partner with Mittens of Detroit to warm the hands and hearts of our Metro Detroit neighbors.  

“The pairs raised at Wild Lights will be immensely helpful, as we can process them quickly and they will be on hands within a week or so of their donation,” says Wendy Shepherd, Mittens for Detroit executive director. “We greatly appreciate once again the community outreach that this fantastic event brings.” 

Last year, our Wild Lights guests helped us collect nearly 800 pairs of gloves and mittens. This year, we are aiming for 1,000 pairs — but we need your help to cross the finish line! When you plan your trip to Wild Lights this season, help us give back by bringing in a pair of new, unused gloves or mittens to donate to those in need. Wrapped collection boxes can be found at the Detroit Zoo’s entrance. Wild Lights runs select evenings through Jan. 8. 

Together, we can ensure the holiday season is merry, bright and warm for all. 

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

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

Authored by Emily Bovee, CZAAWE lab assistant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connecting With Wildlife in an Artful Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing Green: DZS Team Plants Trees in Metro Detroit

DZS employees and their families are volunteering to plant trees throughout Metro Detroit.

Members of the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) team have been rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty for a good cause. 

As part of our commitment to plant 2,000 trees at the Detroit Zoo, the Belle Isle Nature Center and throughout all of Metro Detroit, we have partnered with Greening of Detroit, a member of the Metro Detroit Nature Network, along with American Forests, the Oakland County Economic Development Department and Royal Oak Township to lead or co-sponsor five tree plantings throughout the area this fall. 

We have been thrilled to partner with Greening of Detroit, a nonprofit organization focused on enhancing the quality of life for Detroiters by planting trees, providing job training and involving youth in education about the natural environment. So far, we have completed three of our five plantings, and our staff is having a blast making our communities — quite literally — greener!

At a recent event, DZS employees and their families volunteered their Saturday morning to plant trees along Cloverlawn Avenue and surrounding streets in Detroit. After three hours of digging through compacted soil and clay, we were left with 50 brand-new trees lining both sides of the street. These trees will not only beautify the area, but they will also play an important role in the neighborhood environment. In addition to providing shade and habitat for local wildlife, planting trees in urban areas has been shown to reduce stormwater runoff and improve air quality. 

“These plantings are a lot of work — and a lot of fun,” says Andy McDowell, DZS manager of sustainability. “The DZS has always been committed to environmental sustainability, and now our team is thrilled to give back to local communities and make the world greener one tree at a time.” 

Interested in signing up for one of our remaining tree plantings in Metro Detroit? Click here.

Penguin Egg Laid at Cincinnati Zoo Hatches at Detroit Zoo

DEC. 8, 2022 UPDATE: We’re happy to announce that the penguin chick was determined to be male and has been named Maximilian! Called “Max”for short, he is growing up healthy and tall alongside his doting foster parents.

There’s a fluffy new bundle of joy at the Detroit Zoo! 

A yet-to-be named king penguin chick hatched at the Detroit Zoo on Aug. 13 — but this chick’s story actually began nearly 300 miles away, at the Cincinnati Zoo.

The chick’s biological parents, 27-year-old Larry and 8-year-old Stacy, initially laid the egg, and Cincinnati staff quickly learned the egg was fertile through a process called “floating.” In this process, an egg is floated in warm water to look for ripples in the water. 

“We were excited to confirm fertility when the little bundle of joy was bouncing around like crazy,” says Jennifer Gainer, the Cincinnati Zoo’s curator of birds. 

Not long after, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan recommended the Detroit Zoo as a home for the future chick, and representatives from both zoos started collaborating – carefully crafting a plan to incubate, transport and transfer the king penguin chick egg to its new foster parents.  

Awaiting the little nestling at the Detroit Zoo was the perfect pair of foster parents – a 21-year-old male and a 7-year-old female named Gertie. These king penguins blended and bonded during the July to September mating season but didn’t produce an egg of their own. Instead, to prepare the couple for parenthood, zookeepers provided the pair a “practice” egg to care for until the “real” egg from the Cincinnati Zoo arrived.  

“It was a perfect situation,” says Jessica Jozwiak, bird supervisor at the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS). “We had a pair that was closely bonded but did not produce an egg this year, so we were able to give this egg to them. Everything has worked out wonderfully.” 

Since hatching, the chick has been thriving. While the sex of the chick is not yet known, it is growing up behind the scenes, closely cared for by its attentive foster parents. After fledging, the chick will live with inside the habitat at the Polk Penguin Conservation Center with the rest of the king, macaroni, rockhopper and chinstrap penguins who call the center home. 

We can’t wait to see this special chick grow up!

Great Ape Heart Project Finds Home in Detroit

Aaron Jesue tries not to play favorites. 

However, as he watches Kongo, Pende and Chip, a bachelor group of brother gorillas, lounge about their habitat at the Detroit Zoo, the answer to which gorilla holds Jesue’s heart comes easily. 

“It’s Pende,” he says, a smile spread wide across his face. “He’s inquisitive and curious. He will sit on top of the hill and just stare down at everyone. You can almost feel it in your body. He loves to get a reaction.”

Over the course of his career as a zoo animal care team member, Jesue has worked with dozens of gorillas, and like Pende, he says each is unique and special in their own way. Despite their differences, many gorillas and fellow great apes share a common health risk. Much like it is for humans, heart disease is the leading cause of death observed among great apes in zoos.

Though Jesue understands heart complications may be a reality for his favorite gorilla one day, he takes comfort in knowing a group dedicated to mitigating these issues in great apes is now headquartered at his Zoo.  

In early 2022, the Great Ape Heart Project (GAHP), a group of experts who provide a network of clinical, pathologic and research strategies to aid in understanding and treating cardiac disease in all ape species, moved its headquarters to the Detroit Zoo. 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. The move to Detroit was announced after Dr. Hayley Murphy, founder and director emeritus of the GAHP, was named the executive director and chief executive officer of the Detroit Zoological Society. 

A gorilla receives a health exam at the Detroit Zoo.

Though formally established in 2010, the GAHP got its start much earlier. As a veterinary advisor to the gorilla Species Survival Plan,  Murphy began seeing an increase in the number of cardiovascular disease cases reported in gorillas housed at Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) institutions. Together with cardiologist Dr. Ilana Kutinksy, Murphy created a Gorilla Cardiac Database in 2002 to better analyze and compare the cases they observed in great apes. Overtime, the database gained momentum, and in
2010, with the assistance of a National Leadership Planning Grant from the Institute
of Museum and Library Services, the GAHP was officially born. 

“I love gorillas — I love all apes, but I’ve worked the most with gorillas,” Murphy says. “I fell in love with them when I was just beginning my career as a zoo vet, and I realized the toll heart disease was taking on the population. I saw a need to combine the research being done on heart disease so that these apes could live healthier lives. For me, this was a perfect combination of a passion I had for animals combined with a passion for veterinary medicine.”

In its more than a decade of life, the project has maintained a hub for researchers that includes data for more than 90 percent of adult great apes in AZA-accredited institutions. Today, the primarily volunteer-run project creates procedures and best practices used in all AZA zoos and other institutions around the world. In 2020, the project was recognized for its achievements in advancing scientific research with the AZA’s Research Award.

A gorilla undergoes a health exam at the Detroit Zoo.

“We provide real-time support to institutions that may not have experts on site,” says Dr. Marietta Danforth, GAHP director. “Our team of dedicated volunteers includes cardiologists, pathologists, researchers, zookeepers and managers all coming together with their persective and expertise to create a database to best understand, treat and monitor apes for cardiovascular disease. This has really grown into something huge and impactful.”

While “database” may conjure images of big-screen computers and abstract numbers, Murphy and Danforth say the impacts of the GAHP are just as real as the mammals it seeks to protect. 

“We have certainly seen an increase in lifespan in great apes since we’ve started,” Murphy says. “That’s not only because of us, but I do think we have made a difference. There’ve been many times when people have called us with really sick apes, and we’ve been able to help. We’ve seen these animals recover and live much longer than they would have otherwise. I think that is a really huge marker
of success.”

Now that the GAHP is based at the Detroit Zoo, with which Danforth says the project had an excellent working relationship even before Murphy’s appointment as CEO/executive director, its leaders hope it can continue to spread its reach and save the lives of great apes — from gorillas to chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos and more.

The Great Ape Heart Project moved to Detroit in 2022.

“My vision for the future is that we remain a hub of the wheel where researchers, vets and zookeepers can come together and share resources for great apes,” Murphy says.

“The GAHP exists because everyone involved loves these animals so much. We want to see them thrive. It’s this passion that keeps the program running.”

As a member of the animal care staff on grounds each day caring for the gorillas who call the Detroit Zoo home, Jesue believes having the GAHP at his home Zoo will have positive outcomes for his favorite gorillas going forward. 

“We are going to be able to help great apes around the world. It’s so cool that we can now say this is based at the Detroit Zoo,” Jesue says, keeping a watchful eye over Pende as the silverback meanders through his habitat. “I’m so glad this resource is here for Pende, Chip and Kongo. Because of the work the GAHP does, I believe these guys are going to live long, healthy lives.”  

Chip, Kongo and Pende explore their habitat at the Detroit Zoo.

Sarah Culton is the communications manager at the Detroit Zoological Society.

Detroit Zoological Society Celebrates Animal Care Staff

The Detroit Zoo has been busy celebrating National Zoo Keeper Week!

Hosted from July 18-24, National Zookeeper Week is an annual event that honors the hard work, dedication and passion of the people who care for zoo animals around the country.

To say “thank you” to the hard-working individuals who ensure the animals at the Detroit Zoo receive the highest level of care, we planned a full week of events to make them feel valued and appreciated. 

These events included: 

• An animal care staff breakfast

• A vet ice cream social

• An all-staff picnic

• A food truck rally

• A Zookeeper Olympics

• An Executive Leadership Team cookout

• Dessert Day

We had so much fun at all these events, and we wanted to share the fun with all our readers. Scroll down to see photos we took throughout the week and help us thank our animal care staff for doing an excellent job 365 days of the year. 

Vet Ice Cream Social 2022
Vet Ice Cream Social 2022
Vet Ice Cream Social 2022
All-Staff Picnic 2022
All-Staff Picnic 2022
All-Staff Picnic 2022
Food Truck Rally 2022

ELT Cookout 2022

Zookeeper Olympics 2022 Sack Race
Zookeeper Olympics 2022 Donut Contest
Zookeeper Olympics 2022 Donut Contest
Zookeeper Olympics 2022 Donut Contest

Zookeeper Olympics 2022

Zookeeper Olympics 2022 Haystack Contest
Zookeeper Olympics Sack Race
Zookeeper Olympics Winners
Zookeeper Olympics Third Place Team

Zookeeper Olympics Second Place Team

Zookeeper Olympics First Place Team

Wildlife Adventure Stories: Wildebeests —  The Journey to the North

I was born in the south, thousands of us all in a synchronized timeline when the grass was greenest and at its highest peak. For generation upon generation of wildebeest, it has remained that way. My father was born here, as was his father before him, hundreds of generations.

Our births are a sign of a change in our family landscape and a shift everyone has recognized. It’s automatic, second nature to all of them, and they have told me I would learn to remember my mother’s patterns and smells if I was to survive.

There are signs of the rains gathering over the Serengeti far from us to the north. The grass here will soon be picked clean by my fellow wildebeest, our neighboring antelope and zebra, and all different kinds of creatures who feast upon them. My mother has said that the time has come for us to travel north with the next generation born. We must follow the rains and the grasses that grow from them. The year has only just begun, and we will spend it following the rains and grass. We, old, young, born just hours ago, will travel — millions of wildebeest from thousands of herds. Even now, in the dead of night, as we all gather, ready to move, the sound of hooves is loud, and we stretch everywhere that the eye can see. It will be a dangerous journey, as all the adults have warned me. But we must travel. We must obey the distant call.

It has been months since we began our migration. And, in a word, it has been scary. The month is May, and hundreds of our family friends have met their ends in the Grumeti River. My mother and I stood atop the banks of the north shore and watched as the crocodiles gazed at us with hunger. The sounds of us trampling across the river rolled through like never-ending thunder. I asked why this was necessary.

“Because we need the grass in the north.” She told me, “Now come along; we cannot hesitate; we must continue if we are not to be late.” We still have three months to go until we arrive north, and it has only dawned on me that we will take the same path down south.

By August, I had learned that Grumeti is kind compared to the river Mara. When we crossed it, our elders scoffed and smiled. 

“The rains have been slow this year,” they said, “and the river is not as bad as before.” 

They’ve told me stories about years when the rain was unforgiving. When the rapids of the water tore through us like lions, the crocodiles even hesitated to close in. They tell us to count our blessings, even as today’s rapids continue to attack and harm us. Our crossing is like a bed of rivers traveling across each other. Streams of dozens and thousands of wildebeest barreling through the water at random, with no order, just a desire to cross. No turning back, and we take a leap of faith.

But, after crossing, we reached our destination in the north. The grasses here are plentiful and green, beautiful and tall. They’ve told us children that we will stay here for three months, as that is what can sustain us. So here we shall prevail. I think back to the rivers and all those lost, and I realize that the only way to honor them truly is to thrive here while we still may. Occasionally, we saw humans watching us from their machines and gazing upon us as we grazed or watching us as we crossed rivers. Some cried out while hanging to the last straw, eventually letting it go. Others just looked on in spectacle. There are more humans here, many of them with weapons that ring out like thunder. 

Already, just three months later, in November, we can feel the pull of the rains to the south. The grasses here, just as in the south towards the end of February, have started to fail us, they can no longer sustain us. On a better side, however, the elders have told us stories about how this is the easiest leg of the journey. Going south, we cross no major rivers, no rapids will plague us anymore. Now all we must deal with are lions in the grasses. They’ve told me that it will be easy, though I’m still afraid.

It is December, and we’re halfway through this final leg. We’ve traveled alongside pouring rain, and we can hear and see the storm clouds thunder and feel the rain continue to drench the grasses down south. It’s been almost a year since I’ve been born at the farthest south part of our journey. The grass should be just as high and green as they were when I was born, it will be a wonderful sight.

Exactly one year since I entered this world, I have returned to the scene of my birth. Thousands of wildebeest have again joined me in our grand herd. Thousands more calves will be born soon, hundreds have already entered the world, ready to join us for the next migration. The grasses when we arrived were just as expected, green and lush. I wish we could stay forever, but I know if these grasses are to continue growing, we must leave them to grow and feast elsewhere. We are in that state of permanent migration, only now I have the experience that I did not have back then. And now, even more amazingly, I can now pass on my knowledge to other calves just born. It’s wonderful, even as we prepare to return north on another leg of the migration, that I am now the elders I revered as a calf. Much like the migration is a cycle, so too am I now a part of that amazing world.

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.