Notes from the Field: Eurasian Otter Conservation in Armenia

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) recently began a new wildlife conservation project with Eurasian otters, which are classified as Endangered in Armenia and Near Threatened in the whole of their range. Their numbers have fallen dramatically in Armenia and in neighboring Azerbaijan and Iran; therefore, it is essential that we gather data on their status and work to preserve their populations.

Otters are important indicators of the health of aquatic systems. They are found in a wide variety of habitats, including highland and lowland lakes, rivers, streams, marshes, swamp forests and coastal areas. Armenia, which is a small country about the size of Vermont or New Hampshire, is located in the Caucasus Mountains of west Asia between the Black and Caspian Seas. Despite its small size, Armenia is a biodiversity hotspot important for wildlife conservation because it is located at an intersection where wildlife converge from Eurasia, Africa and the Indian sub-continent.

While conducting fieldwork in Armenia this summer, we walked five transects along rivers and streams in Central Armenia to look for sign of otters such as feces, tracks and/or feeding remains. In every Armenian transect, we found feces and/or feeding signs, such as crab shells, within the first 200 yards. We also set cameras along the rivers to document the otters present in those areas. We heard credible reports of otter sightings in several other areas of Central Armenia – including in urban areas – as well as in the south, west and northern parts of Armenia. It appears that otters have made a comeback, which is great news.

Most otter sightings were accompanied by reports of conflict with humans, due to the otters eating fish out of the ponds at fish farms. A major component of this project – as with many wildlife conservation initiatives the DZS is involved with around the world – will be to investigate ways to mitigate this conflict. We plan to track the success of the farmers we encountered who used dogs and/or fencing as methods to protect their fishponds.

We will also be surveying suitable habitats for otters in all of the Armenian watersheds.  This involves overlaying a 6-mile by 6-mile grid on top of a map of Armenia and noting areas within the grid that have a confirmed otter presence. We also plan to obtain robust population estimates using genetic analyses from the otter feces. With this data, we will be able to determine important locations for otters and explore the potential of setting up sustainable protected areas. This project furthers the DZS’s mission of compassionate conservation as part of the effort is to reduce human-otter conflicts and save individual otters while establishing protected areas for otter populations to thrive in the future.

– Paul Buzzard, Ph.D. is the field conservation officer for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Reading, Writing and Recycling: Go Green Back to School

Back-to-school season is in full swing as an estimated 58 million students are preparing to hit the books this fall. Parents and kids all across the nation are shopping for clothes, shoes and supplies, looking for the best bang for their buck. However, one aspect shoppers may want to consider is how their shopping affects the environment. Buying environmentally friendly school supplies and packing eco-friendly lunches can go a long way toward conserving and protecting our planet’s resources.

Here are some tips to help guide you toward a more “green” back to school experience:

  • Buy 100 percent recycled paper and notebooks – be sure kids use both sides of the sheets whenever possible
  • Write with recycled pencils
  • Recycle while at school – Consider which trash can be saved from a landfill
  • Use refillable pens – each pen can last up to a decade

Small efforts can have big impacts. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), each school lunch generates 67 pounds of waste per school year. That means just one average-sized middle school creates more than 40,000 pounds of waste each year. Packing a waste-free lunch also saves an average student $250.

Here are some ways you can pack a more sustainable lunch this fall:

  • Adopt reusable bag practices – send lunch in a reusable bag instead of a paper or plastic one.
  • Purchase a refillable water bottle – it takes three times the amount of water that’s in a plastic water bottle to create the bottle in the first place.
  • Reach for reusable sandwich bags and containers – consider perhaps a waxed fabric sandwich bag.
  • Compost peels and pits – some students have compost programs at their schools, but for those that don’t, encourage them to bring their apple cores and cherry pits home.

There are many other ways students – with the help of their teachers – can help reach environmental goals. If 133,000 schools switched to recycled paper, they could save about 6 million trees per year, according to The Green School Initiative. America’s schools spend more than $7.5 billion annually on energy – more than they spend on textbooks and computers, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. If school districts worked to conserve 25 percent of that energy, they could save $1.5 billion per year.

Students can also make change themselves by contributing toward green goals through programs such as Michigan Green Schools, which inspires schools to adopt more sustainable practices such as recycling, installing rain gardens and planting edible or native Michigan gardens. Applying to become a Michigan Green School can be pivotal in teaching the next generation essential green practices.

Our future depends on protecting the health and well-being of our children. Educating this generation with the skills to solve the global environmental problems we face is just as important as educating them about math and history. It’s a substantial task to put on such young people, but each small step is one taken toward a more sustainable future.

Animal Welfare: Inspiring the Next Generation

Do you know what it’s like to be a giant anteater? How about what the world looks and sounds like if you are an 18-foot tall giraffe? High school students taking part in the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) animal welfare summer camps had the unique opportunity to experience just that.

Over two weeks, 31 students participated in activities based on the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics’ “From Good Care to Great Welfare” workshop, which annually draws professional animal care staff from around the world. The goal of these immersive exercises is for the students to better understand the world from the perspective of another species.

What we pay attention to in our everyday lives is based on what is meaningful to us. When we make an effort to put ourselves in the place of another being (or as close to it as we can), we become aware of the factors that may impact them, even things we had never noticed before. The students noted that when they were “anteaters”, they focused more on what they could hear and smell. When they were elevated to the height of Jabari, the male giraffe who lives at the Detroit Zoo, they could see the neighboring golf course. They wondered if that is an interesting thing for the giraffes to see. Not all humans like golf, but what do giraffes think of the view? Different species – and different individuals within a species – have different preferences, and we have to pay attention to that to ensure they experience great welfare.

In addition to the immersive exercises, the students also studied the behavior of the two giant anteaters at the Zoo to better understand how they use their habitat and which environmental features they seemed to prefer. They used all of the knowledge they gained to design a new habitat for the anteaters as their final project. It was really impressive to see everything they incorporated into their models, and the reasons they gave for the choices they made. The students participated in a lot of other activities, including working with a staff member from the Humane Society of Huron Valley on positive reinforcement training with one of the amazing adoptable dogs from the shelter. DZS staff made videos documenting the camps, and it was so great to hear how the students are going to take this information with them and apply it to their own lives, including with the animals that share their homes. We had a great time working with everyone and sharing knowledge to inspire the next generation to be aware of and champions for animal welfare.

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

Preventing Pollution? Rain Gardens are a Solution

An average annual rainfall for Michigan is more than 31 inches, which equates to more than 52 million gallons of rainwater per year. That much rainwater can severely damage downspouts and create pollution. A rain garden is an environmentally friendly and attractive way to filter and return storm water runoff from surfaces such as sidewalks and roof tops, while protecting our groundwater and waterways. They can be created on your own property using just a few steps – ultimately minimizing the pollution that emerges from the rainwater gushing out of downspouts.

First, determine if you have a suitable site for a rain garden. The ideal spot is one that is:

  • Fed by only one or two downspouts
  • Far from a septic tank, drain field, or wellhead
  • Free from trees

Next, follow these easy steps:

  • Find an outdoor space that can absorb water, ranging from 100 to 400 square feet. A rain garden should be about 20 percent the size of the roof, patio or pavement area draining into it.
  • If there are trees in the area, make sure they can handle wet soil conditions for lengthy periods of time to ensure that your rain garden is set up for success.
  • Remove the grass and dig a hole at least 2 feet deep.
  • Lay an inlet pipe used for catching the storm water. These small pipes can be purchased at any hardware store for under $20.
  • Add native vegetation, and you’re all set!

The benefits of rain gardens are tremendous. In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, they are easy to maintain and improve water quality by filtering out pollutants. And perhaps the most magnificent benefit is that they attract wildlife such as birds, butterflies and insects who use the plants as a food source.

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is working to protect storm water on the grounds of the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center. We built a rain garden near the Ford Education Center, which collects rain water from the roof of the 38,000-square-foot building and is maintained throughout the entire year, incorporating native Michigan plant species. The downspouts drain into the garden through a pervious pipe located 3 feet below the surface. We’re in the midst of creating a second rain garden near American Coney Island. Native, drought-resistant plants have already been planted and we plan to build a mock house with gutters and rain barrels. Signage will educate guests about how they can incorporate rainwater collection and rain gardens at their homes. In addition, we have incorporated permeable pavement within parking lots and public walkways, which also reduces storm water runoff and improves water quality by filtering out pollutants.

We all have an impact on the planet – projects like these are simple steps we can take to make sure it is a positive one.

Humane Education: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

A selfie or photo with an exotic animal may take only a second to snap and it may even win you a few “likes” on social media, but if you could see the world through the eyes of that animal, you probably wouldn’t want to take the picture. Animals who are taken from the wild or are bred in captivity to become tourist attractions in unaccredited roadside or traveling zoos are often kept chained, isolated, fed inadequate diets, denied veterinary care and/or drugged – for their entire life. The main concern for the individuals and companies who keep these animals isn’t animal well-being but rather, the bottom line.

The good news is that people are becoming more aware of the reality of these situations. In late 2016, for example, TripAdvisor made the decision to stop selling tickets for elephant rides, swim-with-dolphin experiences and attractions that allow people to pet tigers and other exotic animals. This was the result of a campaign launched by World Animal Protection showing that these animal tourist attractions cause psychological and physical trauma, shorten the animals’ lives and also result in even more animals being taken from the wild.

In December of 2017, Instagram began notifying people of potential behind-the-scenes animal abuse for a wide range of wildlife hashtags. If you search for “#slothselfie”, for example, a message will pop up that states, “Animal abuse and the sale of endangered animals or their parts is not allowed on Instagram. You are searching for a hashtag that may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behavior to animals or the environment.” You then have the option to be routed to their website to learn more about wildlife exploitation.

In October of 2017, World Animal Protection launched the Wildlife Selfie Code campaign, asking people to commit to taking “cruelty-free selfies” in the Amazon rainforest. They’re asking people to take a pledge on their website to “help filter wildlife cruelty out of tourism, and make sure your voice is heard”. Again, this is another opportunity for us to further spread awareness of the reality behind these animal tourist attractions.

These animal photo ops are often thought of as things that happen abroad. You might be surprised to learn that these incidents occur in the Metro Detroit area as well. Just this summer, a local festival announced that they were planning to have tigers at their event, offering photo opportunities. After significant pressure from the public, they decided to forego the tiger attraction. This is a great reminder that we shouldn’t be afraid to speak up! Collectively, our voices and actions truly do make a difference.

The next time you see an animal being forced to perform or interact with people, ask yourself:

  • What does a day in the life of this animal look like?
  • What happens to the animal when he/she isn’t being shown?
  • Where did this animal come from originally?
  • How does he/she live? What does he/she do?
  • What is their circadian rhythm (the natural daily cycles we experience that affect our physiology and behavior)? Is it normal for them to be out at this time of day?
  • What is the lifetime care plan for this animal?
  • What is his/her ability to choose? Is the animal participating because he/she wants to?
  • What does the world look like from the animal’s perspective? Try to imagine the experience through their eyes, ears and nose.

Always remember to take photos of wildlife from a distance, without disturbing them, in their natural habitat. If ever you have concerns about the well-being an animal that you encounter being forced to perform or interact with people, document what you see and report the situation to the appropriate authorities. Together, we can make a positive difference in the lives animals.

– Lisa Forzley is the curator of humane education for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Berman Academy for Humane Education.

At First Light: Meeting Sweet Baby Jane

As the lights gradually came on at sunrise behind the scenes at the Detroit Zoo’s Great Apes of Harambee on Saturday, July 14, 34-year-old chimpanzee Abby made her way over to the mesh that separates the neighboring stall. She knocked on the door and vocalized to the other chimpanzees, who were slowly starting to wake up. Curious chimps approached the mesh to greet Abby, and as they looked, they could see a tiny newborn chimpanzee in her arms. Abby greeted her friends and showed them her baby while keeping a safe distance to protect her from any inquisitive poking fingers.

The little one was born just after midnight on what was coincidentally the first World Chimpanzee Day. She was named “Jane” after legendary primatologist and anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall, in honor of the anniversary of her first visit to what is now Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania to study the social interactions of wild chimpanzees.

During the first few days, Abby remained separated from the rest of the chimpanzee troop to allow her to rest and bond with Jane and for Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) staff to monitor them. While Abby is an experienced mother, having given birth to daughter Chiana 24 years ago (who is a mother herself to 4-year-old Zuhura) it is important for staff to observe a chimpanzee mother and her infant. DZS staff immediately began documenting the frequency that Jane nurses, which should be in short durations every 60-100 minutes. They’ve also been recording maternal behaviors – some of which are simply adorable, such as when Abby holds up her baby, looks at her and then hugs her to her chest. Animal care staff are cautious to not disturb Abby as they make their observations, sitting quietly in the aisle of their holding area with mesh in between them. In those first few days, with Jane sleeping soundly on her mother’s chest between nursings, Abby’s tired eyes would grow heavy and she’d gently give Jane a few comforting pats on her back before falling asleep herself.

Jane’s grip grows stronger each day. She is now holding on tightly to her mom’s chest with both hands and feet, only occasionally needing a little extra support. After a few days of observations, staff determined that Abby and Jane were ready to move to the dayroom of the indoor habitat and meet some of the other chimpanzees. Abby greeted her friends Trixi and Tanya and began to groom with them by the windows while Jane slept in her arms. Abby denied Tanya’s request to touch Jane’s hand, so Tanya settled with looking closely at Jane while she made her nest nearby.

Over the next few days, Abby was reunited with the remaining chimpanzee troop members, including Jane’s father, Imara. They had a chance to see – and try to touch – Jane for the first time. Some were curious, including youngsters Ajua and Akira, who stared in apparent amazement and couldn’t take their eyes off of little Jane, while others such as Nyani barely seemed to notice the infant. Formerly the youngest of the group, Zuhura, almost 5, appeared unsure of what to think of Jane. Zuhura followed Abby everywhere in demand of the attention of her grandmother and curiously wanting to see Jane. Zuhura would repeatedly – and gently – reach out to touch Jane, but Abby would turn away and hold onto the little one tightly while trying to distract Zuhura with some playful tickles. With all 11 of the chimpanzees now together, they often are seen eagerly grooming in the sunlight by the windows, a way that chimpanzees maintain positive relationships with one another.

Abby and Jane ventured into their outdoor habitat for the first time just shy of Jane’s 2-week-old mark. Dad Imara escorted his family on a few investigative laps around the habitat before Abby decided it was time to lay down and rest again. With plenty of space, Abby has yet to identify a preferred spot to rest with Jane, but she can often be seen in and below the trees, as well as at the windows looking into the public viewing area.

It’s difficult to believe since she is still so tiny, but Jane has grown quite a bit in these last few weeks and is hitting all of her development milestones. After three weeks, Jane is awake more often and starting to look around and focus on her surroundings. She has been holding on to Abby’s chest tightly, rarely needing the support of her mother’s hand on her back, and can pull herself up and push with her legs to adjust her position if she is hungry. Although Jane will still appear small as the weeks go on, she will be making strides in her growth and development. We are all eager to watch her continue to grow and for her personality to begin to shine.

– Melissa Thueme is a mammal supervisor for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Veterinary Care: Baby Jane’s Prenatal Check-ups

While newborn photos of a female baby chimpanzee have gone viral on our social media accounts, they weren’t the first images taken of little Jane. During mom Abby’s 33-week pregnancy, Detroit Zoological Society staff performed eight ultrasounds of the baby, who is named after legendary primatologist and anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall.

Staff works diligently with the great apes who live at the Detroit Zoo to develop behaviors that allow us to monitor their health. The gorillas and chimpanzees open their mouths to let us look at their teeth, show us their hands and feet and lean against the mesh to allow the administration of vaccines. Most of the chimpanzees will press their chests toward the mesh so we can take images of their hearts with an ultrasound probe.  Abby quickly learned to position herself and allow us to put the probe on her belly so that we could monitor her growing fetus. After a few practice sessions, we invited an OB (obstetrical) ultrasound technician to the Zoo to take the standard measurements collected during pregnancy in human women.

Abby was a cooperative patient and always appeared excited to see us. She would prop herself on a ledge and eat peanuts during each exam, allowing the peanut shells to pile up on her growing belly.  There are limits to the ways we can position the probe, and we were not always able to get every measurement at every visit. In the early months, we were able to measure the length of the fetus from the crown to the rump; as the baby grew, we measured the circumference of the head and abdomen and length of the long bones, including the femur and humerus. We were also able to see the position of the fetus and measure the heart rate. With each exam, we added data to our growth charts, and were pleased to see steady growth and development. We also became increasingly confident that the baby was a girl.

Abby is the third chimpanzee mom that has allowed us to conduct obstetrical ultrasounds, and since 2008 we have been able to collect measurements from three pregnancies, including youngsters Ajua and Akira. Using these measurements and data from two scientific publications, we were able to make a solid prediction of Abby’s due date – July 14, the date of the first annual World Chimpanzee Day! As this date approached, animal care staff began round-the-clock checks to look for signs of labor. Just three days before the due date, we performed a final ultrasound exam. We were pleased to see that the baby was still growing according to expectations. We could see her face and watch her open and close her mouth and wiggle her arms and legs. Most importantly, we could see that the baby had a strong heartbeat and was positioned with her head down, which is the correct position for a normal delivery.

Anyone who has anticipated the delivery of a baby knows that due dates are not an exact science. But Abby delivered her baby at 12:01 a.m. on July 14, one minute into the day predicted as her due date, and the delivery was without complication. Being able to monitor babies during pregnancy allows us to prepare for any issues that might arise, and to intervene if needed. Abby is a wonderful mom, and is taking good care of Jane. She seemed excited to show off her new baby to the other chimpanzees, and held her against the window for everyone to see. We look forward to watching her grow and thrive in her habitat at the Great Apes of Harambee.

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.