Notes from the Field: Saving Endangered African Vultures

Most people probably don’t consider vultures to be lovable creatures. But I do, which is why I spent a month this winter working with VulPro, an African vulture conservation organization that rescues and rehabilitates sick and injured vultures. I first fell in love with the African vultures who live here at the Detroit Zoo – there are four different species with as many different personalities as there are individual vultures. By caring for these animals, not only did I gain affection and respect for African vultures, but I also gained special skills in the veterinary care of these amazing birds, and I was thrilled when the Detroit Zoological Society gave me the opportunity to use those skills to help directly with the conservation of wild vultures in Africa.

You may wonder why African vultures need saving. Groups of turkey vultures soaring overhead are a common sight here in Michigan. Fortunately, North American vulture species are doing well, but all across the continent of Africa, populations of wild vultures are declining rapidly. There are 11 species of vultures in Africa, and according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List, seven of those species are currently endangered or critically endangered.

Vultures play a significant role in the ecosystem health; they are essentially nature’s clean-up crew. By scavenging and cleaning up carcasses, they can prevent the spread of deadly diseases, such as anthrax and botulism, and they have an amazing ability to clean up these diseases without becoming infected themselves. Without vultures around to provide their sanitation services, infected carcasses disappear more slowly and attract more mammalian scavengers, resulting in a huge increase in the potential for disease transmission. Thus, it is hugely problematic that African vulture populations are plummeting and so quickly.

There are numerous threats to wild populations of vultures. In South Africa, power line collisions are one of the biggest threats to vultures. In other places, vultures are subject to poisoning; for instance, poachers will often poison carcasses to prevent circling vultures from alerting rangers to the poached animal’s remains. Sometimes vultures are unintentionally poisoned when a farmer is trying to target a predator, such as a lion, that has been preying on cattle. Vultures can also face long-term health problems from eating carcasses that have bullet fragments in them, causing lead poisoning.

African vulture populations are in serious need of help, and the Detroit Zoological Society is working with VulPro, an African vulture conservation organization based near Pretoria, South Africa, to rehabilitate the sick and injured wild vultures they receive and release them back into the wild. When staff are unable to restore a vulture’s ability to survive in the wild, the bird becomes a resident at VulPro and has the opportunity to nest and breed. The offspring are then released into the wild.

In January, I traveled to South Africa to perform routine health checks for the more than 200 vultures that live at VulPro’s facility. This involved checking their body condition, listening to their heart and lungs, checking wing and leg joints, and looking into their eyes. We also set up a small laboratory for VulPro, where we collected blood to look at red and white blood cell counts, measure blood protein levels, and test for the presence of lead. I also checked fecal samples to look for parasites. Our results showed the overall health of the residents at VulPro is excellent!

This partnership with VulPro is the latest in the Detroit Zoological Society’s comprehensive wildlife conservation programs. We are committed to saving birds around the world.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Detroit Zoological Society Leads Task Force to Evaluate Risks Facing Honduran Amphibians

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently asked the Detroit Zoological Society to host an Amphibian Red List workshop in Honduras. The IUCN Red List is the world’s most comprehensive information source for understanding extinction risk for animals. To develop this list, a rigorous assessment process is conducted using all known data on each species. Based on what threats the animals are facing, e.g., habitat decline, population decline and habitat fragmentation, the animals are placed into one of eight categories:

  • Extinct – None left
  • Extinct in the Wild – None are left in the wild, but captive groups exist
  • Critically Endangered – These species are often labeled “probably extinct” and are in imminent danger of extinction
  • Endangered – These species are at high risk of extinction
  • Vulnerable – These species are at moderate risk of extinction
  • Near Threatened – These species are not currently at risk of extinction but are anticipated to be at risk in the near future
  • Least Concern – These species are not currently at risk of extinction
  • Data Deficient – Not enough information

It’s important to note that animals in the Least Concern category are still of concern and should not be ignored, but the threats facing animals in the other categories are currently causing more pressures. The Red List rating scale is often referred to as a “barometer of life”, with each category indicating the amount of pressure on a species pushing it closer toward extinction.

Hosting a Red Listing workshop for the amphibians in Honduras was an exciting and extremely intense process. Of all the countries in Central America, Honduras has the highest number of amphibians that are endemic – or found only in that country, which makes it a very important area for biodiversity. Unfortunately, Honduras doesn’t receive a lot of conservation attention and many of these amphibians are facing the threat of extinction. The Detroit Zoological Society was eager to help this underappreciated hot spot for biodiversity move forward toward understanding the conservation needs of its unique amphibians.

This IUCN assessment of amphibians was the first assessment of all amphibian species in Honduras for more than 15 years, and since the last assessment, 22 new amphibian species were discovered in the country. To assess the animals, the local Honduran amphibian experts were brought together at Universidad Zamarano outside Tegucigulpa for the workshop. With the help of myself, the IUCN facilitators, and two other amphibian experts from the U.S., we all sat down to share data on the 151 species of amphibians in Honduras and determine their IUCN categories. Holding this assessment in country was critical for the participation of these local experts who had intimate knowledge of the species, and who were able to discuss future steps in protecting species of critical need.

We learned a lot through this workshop. Although there were more species assessed in 2019 than in 2002, the overall number of species that are Extinct, Critically Endangered and Endangered all increased. This is especially concerning in this unique area of biodiversity. Because the Red List allows us to assess the specific threats facing the animals, we were able to discuss potential conservation actions needed. At the end of the workshop, a meeting was held with officials from Instituto de Conservaticion Forestal, the governmental institution similar to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in order to discuss the results of the assessments and what steps could be taken next. Additionally, we hosted a symposium at the Universidad Nacional Automona de Honduras in Tegucigalpa in order to raise awareness about the IUCN workshop and the state of amphibians in the country. More than 150 individuals attended the symposium, including government officials, researchers and students. It was encouraging to see the excitement within the country, especially in so many young students, for the preservation of amphibians. We will continue to evaluate what we’ve learned from this process and determine the next course of action to save these critical species.

– Dr. Ruth Marcec-Greaves is the director of the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center.

Preparing the Next Generation of Wildlife Protectors

As a leader in conservation work across six continents, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is saving animals from extinction. Dedicated DZS professionals work year-round to support this important work, fueled by a passion to protect and preserve wildlife and wild places for future generations. Our animal care staff have an obvious role in this important work, but every staff member has a meaningful part.

Each year, close to 20,000 students and teachers participate in programs and experiences designed to inspire the next generation of wildlife protectors. The learning experiences engage participants with hands-on activities as they build essential process skills and meet classroom curriculum requirements while encouraging them to join us in our mission of Celebrating and Saving Wildlife. A great example of this type of programming is our Conservation Project Learning Labs, which includes programs designed for school groups that feature DZS conservation work. The Conservation Project: Panamanian Golden Frog Learning Lab for upper elementary and middle school students is one of the most requested school programs we offer.

When the students arrive for this program, staff greet them by welcoming them to “Panama”. A brief introduction covers what a Species Survival Plan is and how the DZS works with other zoos and aquariums across the country to ensure the survival of selected species, many of which are threatened or endangered. Panamanian golden frogs have not been found in the wild in more than 10 years, making the populations being raised in zoos and aquariums a lifeline for the species to exist. The students have important work to do during their visit: They’re responsible for determining the best site in Panama to release Panamanian golden frogs into their native habitat.

The students rotate through a series of stations to emulate how professional wildlife ecologists work in the field. Simulated habitats planted in large containers allow students to test water quality from a running stream, check for signs of human activity in the area, and swab plants and rocks in the model to check for diseases that would impact the frogs’ health. The students collect and record data at each potential release site, then move on to “assess the health” of rubber frogs by weighing and measuring each one as animal care staff would. At the final station, the students decide which of the three sites frogs should be released at based on the data they collected.

Programs that allow participants to see themselves as scientists and practice skills through realistic, hands-on activities create experiences to remember. The students walk away empowered and inspired to become future wildlife advocates. To review a complete list of programs available for school groups, visit https://detroitzoo.org/education/teachers-and-schools/learning-labs/.

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

Turn Your Backyard into a Wildlife Sanctuary

As spring finally arrives, our neighborhoods are quickly coming back to life after a long winter’s slumber. Each morning we wake up to birds singing outside our windows and wildlife stirring from their winter hideouts as they venture out in search of food and companionship. We have an important role in their success as we own and care for much of the space they call home.

Our yards are becoming increasingly important sanctuaries for native wildlife. With open spaces quickly dwindling to new subdivisions, commercial buildings and parking lots, there is little left for the species who have always lived here. By sharing our backyards with birds, pollinators, small mammals, amphibians and reptiles, we’re keeping the ecosystem intact and benefiting all species, including ourselves.

Birds, amphibians and bats all help keep the insect population in control, making our summer afternoons more enjoyable without constantly swatting away mosquitos and other winged nuisances. Pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, provide us with beautiful flowers and are responsible for fertilizing crops, ultimately producing one out of every three bites of food we eat. Snakes eat insects and small rodents, keeping populations in control and out of our sheds, garages and homes. To keep these natural systems in balance, we need to minimize our impact on their daily routines.

It’s relatively easy to create an oasis for wildlife while we continue to enjoy our outdoor space. Last spring, DZS staff planned and prepared a Backyards for Wildlife site near the Detroit Zoo’s American Coney Island to demonstrate how simple projects in our backyards can have a positive impact for wildlife. Volunteers from the Ford Motor Company helped to plant a variety of native flowers, grasses and shrubs in the area, and laid a wood chip path to lead guests into the space, which will soon be full of blooming flowers and busy pollinators.

In preparation for GreenFest on April 27, the site will be enhanced with signage that suggests simple things homeowners can do in their yards. These tips include:

Install rain barrels on downspouts. Collecting rain to irrigate lawns and gardens can save homeowners as much as $35 a month on summer water bills.

Keep your cat indoors to save songbirds. Wildlife biologists estimate that as many as one in every 10 songbirds are killed by domestic cats. Keeping cats indoors may also prevent the spread of many feline illnesses.

Install a bat house. Before you call an exterminator to spray for unwanted mosquitos, consider installing a bat house. A bat can eat up to a thousand mosquitos in a single evening!

Build a birdhouse. A birdhouse can be a fun project to build and paint with children. It will provide a safe shelter for birds raising their young.

Incorporate native plants in your landscape. Native plants require less water and care than introduced species, they come back year-after-year and are important food sources for birds, butterflies and other pollinators. Even if you live in an apartment and only have a balcony, a potted plant or small window box can provide many of these same benefits to native wildlife. For suggestions on where to buy native plants, visit https://detroitzoo.org/who/ and select the “Certify Your Habitat” dropdown.

Our Backyards for Wildlife site is a place for learning and enjoyment for humans, and a great example of how our personal choices can make a positive difference for our non-human neighbors. Join us at GreenFest on April 27, to learn more as we celebrate Earth Day with demonstrations from our Green Team, conservation education, citizen science projects and exhibits by local conservation groups.

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

Toss Out Your Old Spring-Cleaning Routine and Bring in the Green

The grass may always be greener, but you can be too! As you begin your annual spring-cleaning routine, consider making some changes that will impact the environment in a positive way. Some simple modifications will help keep your home fresh and clutter-free while also creating a sustainable future for people and animals. From choosing the right cleaning products to watching your water usage, here are some helpful tips you can adopt to clean the green way:

Purchase environmentally friendly cleaning products. Popular cleaning products often contain chemicals that are harmful to you and the environment. Next time you purchase your spring-cleaning necessities, double check the ingredients for harsh chemicals, including phthalates or triclosan, which can poison our bodies and our aquatic ecosystems. Phthalates can cause disruptions in our endocrine system while triclosan is an antibacterial that kills algae in more than half of the streams in the U.S. Instead, look for eco-friendly, plant-based products. They offer the same cleaning benefits with less risk to our health and the Earth’s water.

Make your own cleaning products. Save money and the environment by creating homemade soaps and disinfectants – it’s easier than you might think. There are many simple recipes you can follow to clean your bathrooms, floors, counters and cabinets. Try substituting chemical-filled cleansers with white vinegar or baking soda and water. Adding a couple drops of essential oil to your natural concoctions produces a great scent and has cleaning benefits of its own. Tea tree oil is a natural disinfectant; peppermint and lemon also have natural and powerful cleaning agents and they will leave your home smelling fresh.

Declutter clothing and household items the right way. Channel your inner Marie Kondo while sorting through old clothes and instead of throwing these items away, toss them into the hands of someone who might find your trash as their treasure! You can gather your items and have a garage sale or donate them to charity. This eliminates waste in our landfills and you could earn some extra cash. But if you do decide to toss some items, there are environmentally friendly ways to do so. Recycle or reuse what you can to try to eliminate as much waste as possible.

Watch your water usage. We can accidentally waste a lot of water by leaving the faucet on longer than is necessary. By being conscious of this, we can help preserve this important resource. When cleaning areas of your house, a bucket full of water works to rinse out the mop or rag and uses far less water than taking it to the tub. These few changes can help you not only save water, but also your hard-earned dollars!

Purify the air with houseplants. Not only are plants beautiful décor, they can also purify the air and provide health benefits to those who reside in the home. Houseplants reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in our homes while also keeping air temperatures down. They even eliminate dust levels, making spring-cleaning a little easier! Having plants around us creates a sense of comfort and lowers stress levels, too.

Together, we can make small changes to our yearly spring-cleaning routine that can make a huge difference in our lives and the lives of Earth’s wonderful creatures. By incorporating these few tips and tricks, we can take another step forward on our Green Journey and help create eco-friendly communities. Spring is in the air, but harmful chemicals don’t have to be.

Detroit Zoological Society’s Online Resource Center Expands Knowledge of Animal Welfare and Ethics

When the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) created the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE), one of the main goals was to increase the knowledge about the welfare of animals living in the care of humans. We developed an online resource center, which is regularly updated, to ensure as much information about animal welfare and ethics can be easily found. Dr. Matt Heintz, an animal welfare research associate for the DZS, stays up to date on newly published articles and is responsible for growing this incredible resource.

The database now contains more than 7,000 references, with some dating back as far as 1932. It represents a broad range of topics as the expansive field of animal welfare continues to grow. Users can search for specific topics, species and authors. Each entry includes a summary of the publication and a link to where the full article can be found. Some are made freely available to anyone by the journal publishers, while others may require a fee or access through subscriptions. The CZAAWE online resource center and the searches that can be performed are entirely free, as access to knowledge is important in our collective efforts to better understand animal welfare and ethics. This database has proven to be a valuable resource and in just the last four years, it has been accessed more than ten thousand times by people in 102 countries.

Dr. Heintz analyzed the database to look for trends in the literature and to help identify gaps in the knowledge currently available. Although a wide breadth of welfare topics are represented, much of the published literature is focused on mammalian species. This tells us that more research needs to center on amphibians, birds, fish, invertebrates and reptiles. He also found a fun way to visually represent the trends using a word cloud image. The terms that are more commonly found in the references are shown in a larger font.

The goal of increasing knowledge about animal welfare and ethics is an important one and we will continue to dedicate ourselves to increasing the usefulness and accessibility of this resource. If you want to learn more about animal welfare and ethics, we encourage you to check out the online resource center, which can be found at www.czaw.org/resources. The more we know, the more we can contribute to promoting great animal welfare.

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

Detroit Zoological Society Spreads Cheer at Local Hospitals

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has provided regular programming for children at local hospitals for a number of years. The monthly, hands-on activities provide a welcome distraction from short or long hospital stays as young patients receive treatment at both Beaumont Children’s Hospital in Royal Oak and Detroit Medical Center Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. With a goal of reaching as many pediatric patients as possible, and thanks to generous donations from DZS guests, staff and volunteers, we are sharing a new experience with these children that is filling hospital activity rooms with smiling faces.

This interactive experience allows them to step into the role of a veterinarian or wildlife conservationist. As children enter the room, they have the opportunity to choose and “adopt” a plush animal. They take the animal through a series of health check-ups, including weighing, measuring, food preparation and X-ray review, carefully charting the information they collect. At the end of the examination, the child is able to keep the plush animal as a forever friend.

 

The stations are intentionally designed to be flexible and meet the diverse needs of each child. If a patient does not want to or is unable to move from station to station, the activities can be easily brought to them. The experience can be shortened or lengthened depending on the interest and stamina of each child. The activities can also be made more challenging for older children or simplified for younger patients.

The process of completing the animals’ health check-ups provides an opportunity for hospital staff to communicate with patients about their own treatment. Physical therapy and patient aide staff are also able to take advantage of these activities to help patients move from station to station.

The plush animals have been available for purchase at a discounted price in the Detroit Zoo’s gift shop, Zoofari Market, since 2014. The philanthropic idea was the brainchild of employees of Service Systems Associates, which operates the Zoo’s concessions and retail services.

Our pediatric hospital programs are creating memorable moments for children during their hospital stays, which can be a difficult time for many. Because of those who have so generously donated to this program, we are able to make a real difference in their lives.

– Carla Van Kampen is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.