Quick-Change Veterinary Action from Vultures to Flamingos

During my career as a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society, I’ve learned that anything is possible. In January, I went to South Africa to work on a DZS-supported vulture conservation project, with a plan to do routine health checks and blood testing on 200 vultures, but within a few days, I found myself flying off to another part of the country to help rescue abandoned flamingo chicks.

I was prepared for the vultures, but the flamingos were completely unexpected. Despite the fact that both animals are birds, the list of differences is far longer than the list of similarities, from their diets and method of consumption to their habitats, the way they move and fly, how they build their nests and at what rate they grow.

The Detroit Zoo is home to many of the same species of vultures I was sent to work with at Vulpro, a vulture rescue, rehabilitation and conservation organization in South Africa. During my time with the DZS, I have developed special skills with vultures over the years, and I was ready to do this work. The DZS has a long history of working with vultures and is working with Vulpro to protect these endangered and threatened species. However, after only five days, we received an unusual phone call: A Lesser flamingo breeding colony located at Kamfers Dam, a two-hour flight south in the city of Kimberley, was in serious trouble. The flamingo breeding season was just beginning, but the water in the dam had dried up. This left thousands of young chicks and eggs abandoned by their parents, who had to go elsewhere to find food. VulPro immediately stepped in to help, on the condition that I was willing to oversee the care of the chicks. But I hadn’t prepared for this. Vultures: no problem. Flamingo chicks: not even on my radar. Fortunately, we had just spent the previous five months hand-raising a Chilean flamingo chick at the Detroit Zoo, so I had experiential training. Additionally, I recently devoted two years to studying for a comprehensive exam to become certified as a zoo vet specialist through the American College of Zoological Medicine, so I was prepared for work with nearly any species.

And that’s how our mission suddenly shifted from examining and blood testing 200 African vultures to preparing for the arrival of an unknown number of flamingo chicks of uncertain ages and in varying states of health…as quickly as possible. I needed to formulate the chick feed – a blend of shrimp, fish, eggs, rice cereal and vitamins, determine feeding protocols and schedules, develop a biosecurity protocol, prepare antibiotic and fluid dosages for sick chicks, set temperature and humidity requirements and help the amazing VulPro staff construct appropriate housing for flamingo chicks weighing about 2 ounces when they typically work with 18-pound vultures.

In the field of zoo medicine, you quickly learn who to call when you need help, and in this case, that was Bonnie Van Dam, the DZS’s associate bird curator, and Cher Fajardo, the DZS’s bird supervisor. They’ve both gained expertise and amassed a lot of resources during many years raising flamingo chicks. They gave me the exact information I needed, and with the help of VulPro staff, volunteers, and other conservation partners, we were prepared. Within 24 hours, I was on a very small plane flying over South Africa to Kimberley to triage, treat and transport 165 tiny little flamingo chicks.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and operates out of the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Animal Welfare: More than the “Bear” Necessities

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) recently renovated the grizzly bear habitat at the Detroit Zoo, doubling the amount of outdoor and indoor space available to the three rescued brothers. Staff with the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics are measuring changes in the bears’ activity budgets, behavioral diversity and fecal glucocorticoid concentrations to assess the impact of the expanded habitat. We will also be testing the efficacy of a biomarker of oxidative stress as a novel indicator of animal welfare.

The grizzly bears living at the Detroit Zoo, Mike, Thor and Boo, are brothers who were rescued in Alaska after their mother was killed by a poacher and the cubs began foraging too close to humans. At just a year old, they were too young to care for themselves and the DZS has been able to provide them with a safe place to grow up. The bears are now 7 years old and weigh approximately 900 pounds. With their inquisitive nature and significant strength, they frequently “redecorate” their habitat by moving logs around and digging in various locations. It became clear that they were outgrowing the habitat they called home since 2012.

As part of the DZS’s commitment to ensuring individual animals experience great welfare, a significant expansion of the grizzly bears’ habitat is underway. Not only will this augment the amount of land space available to the bears, it will also provide them with new behavioral choices. They will have access to more features such as caves to provide cool, shaded areas. The larger habitat will also increase natural foraging opportunities for the bears.

When we make changes that affect the lives of animals, it is important that we understand how those changes impact them. To that end, we began collecting data last fall, prior to construction, to obtain a baseline of the bears’ behavior and hormone levels. Observations continued during construction and will end two months after the bears move back into their renovated home. Zookeepers have also been filling out daily surveys to add to the information we are gathering. Fecal samples are collected daily and these will be analyzed in our lab to measure hormone levels related to how the bears react to these changes. Using these different types of data in concert will increase our understanding of the expansion effect on the bears’ overall well-being.

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.

Animal Welfare: The Detroit Zoological Society to the Rescue

Eight years ago this month, Detroit Zoological Society staff took part in the largest animal rescue effort in the world. More than 26,000 animals were seized from an exotic animal dealer in Texas when it was discovered that animals at the dealer’s property were living in crowded, squalid conditions, many without access to adequate food, water and veterinary care. Leaders at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) contacted us to help. The conditions in Texas were so bad that for some animals, help came too late, but many – from small mammals to amphibians – came to live at the Detroit Zoo in habitats that would meet all of their needs. This significant effort to help animals is just one of many DZS animal rescue stories.

Prior to the historic Texas rescue, we’d previously worked with PETA to rescue polar bears traveling as part of a circus based out of Mexico. Bärle was one of those fortunate bears, and once she found her forever home at the Detroit Zoo, she enjoyed the comforts of her habitat in the 4-acre Arctic Ring of Life and gave birth to Talini, a female polar bear – now 12 – who is still living at the Zoo. Other rescued animals living at the Detroit Zoo include a lioness named Erin – who, along with two other lions, was rescued from a junkyard in Kansas – as well as several ring-tailed lemurs from three different rescues (including the Texas rescue described above). Forty of the amphibians rescued in Texas in 2009 are still living in the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center.

Not all of the animals we’ve helped rescue come from bad captive conditions. Sometimes, animals are found injured or otherwise unable to care for themselves. Such was the case for the three male grizzly bears, Mike, Thor and Boo, whose mother was killed by a poacher, leaving behind three cubs who were too young to be on their own. All five seals living in the Arctic Ring of Life were rescued from the wild after they were found on beaches and deemed unable to care for themselves, and the bald eagles at the Detroit Zoo suffered injuries in the wild that rendered them unable to fly. Without the Detroit Zoo, animals like these would likely not have a home, and could be euthanized.

A western pond turtle – an endangered species – was rescued in California and is now living in the Detroit Zoo’s Holden Reptile Conservation Center after a concerned citizen saw a Facebook post by a man who was intending to cook and eat the animal.

Animal welfare is at the core of the Detroit Zoological Society’s mission, and is reflected in our efforts to rescue animals. Requests to provide a life-long home for rescued animals are frequent. Such requests can place a strain on resources for zoological institutions, not all of which can accommodate them. We will continue to assist whenever possible, and we encourage you to come visit the rescued animals at the Detroit Zoo. To learn more and see how you can help, visit: https://thezoothatcould.detroitzoo.org/animal-welfare/

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

Save a Life and Find a “Fur-ever” Friend

Three weeks ago, I adopted a 7-year-old female yellow Labrador retriever from a local animal shelter. I named her Clemmie, short for Clementine. She was found as a malnourished stray with protruding ribs and visible signs indicating she’d been used to breed many litters of puppies. It’s quite possible that she was dumped when she was no longer wanted by her previous owner. While I can’t undo the things that have happened to her in the past, I will do all that I can to provide the best possible life for her going forward. As Clemmie’s newly trusted guardian, I am committed to her well-being for the remainder of her life.

In the few short weeks since she joined my family, Clemmie has brought me immense joy. She greets me with tail wags and kisses each day when I return home from work. We spend time together taking long walks, meeting neighbors and enjoying our time in nature. She’s not yet certain how to play with toys, but I’ll continue to work with her on that. I’ve purchased dog food puzzles that will provide her with mental stimulation when I have to leave her at home alone. I’m also looking into playtime opportunities at local dog parks. I’m truly grateful to have found my “fur-ever” best friend. While it might appear that I rescued her, she’s brought as much happiness into my life as I have hers.

Unfortunately, an estimated 10,000 dogs and cats are euthanized in shelters each day due to a lack of homes. That adds up to 3-4 million animals in the U. S. each year. So when you adopt an animal, not only are you bringing home a new member of your family, you’re also responsible for saving that individual’s life.

Local rescue organizations and shelters can support you in finding the perfect companion animal for you. Join us this weekend for Meet Your Best Friend at the Zoo – one of the nation’s largest off-site companion animal adoption events – where hundreds of dogs, cats, puppies and kittens are available for adoption to loving homes. And don’t forget to stop by the Zoo’s humane education table while you’re there and learn more about how we work to help people help animals.

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

Animal Welfare: A Brown Bear’s Journey

This month, we are celebrating the 20th birthday of Polly, a Syrian brown bear who was rescued and found sanctuary at the Detroit Zoo when she was young. She arrived in September of 2000 after spending the first three-and-a-half years of her life in deplorable conditions. Polly was born at a private breeder’s facility in Virginia in 1997. When she was 4 months old, she was sold to a roadside circus on the East Coast that already had a small menagerie of other animals. When she became too big to handle, Polly was relegated to a small cage with a large, hamster-like performance wheel where she rocked back and forth incessantly.

Several complaints from disturbed circus visitors concerned about the bear’s living conditions prompted PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) to try to secure her freedom. After months of negotiations, PETA was successful in convincing the circus owner to relinquish the bear. The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) accepted PETA’s request to provide a new home for Polly, providing her with the chance to finally experience an environment in which her welfare was of the utmost importance.

After all these years in a safe and stimulating environment, cared for by dedicated DZS staff members, Polly still demonstrates some of the unnatural, stereotypic behaviors she developed living in a small cage, despite being in an environment that is much larger and more suitably complex and stimulating. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see animals continue to demonstrate such behaviors even after they are removed from the conditions that caused the behaviors in the first place.  These “behavioral scars” are not a reflection of current conditions, but rather of past traumatic experiences that forever alter an animal’s behavior and life. DZS staff members monitor Polly closely, as they do all of the animals, and use positive reinforcement training and environmental enrichment, as well as allowing her to exercise as much choice and control over her environment as possible to provide her with a safe and comfortable home that meets her physical, behavioral and emotional needs.

Polly reminds us that animals which are forced to perform for human entertainment in circuses and other “shows”, are usually harmed in the process of their training or their living conditions, and often irreparably. All animals deserve to live in environments in which they can thrive, not just survive, and once they are scarred, they often can never be fully healed, despite the great care sanctuaries, like the Detroit Zoo, provide them.

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