Notes from the Field: Eurasian Otter Conservation Continues in Armenia

The Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) latest wildlife conservation initiative, preserving endangered Eurasian otters, continued with an expedition to Armenia in late 2018. Their status in this country has declined dramatically in recent years while numbers have also fallen in neighboring Azerbaijan and Iran.

Our first goal of the project is to understand where the otter population currently stands throughout the regions of Armenia that contain separate river systems, which provide suitable habitats for otters. These 13 systems – called watersheds – don’t always show signs of otters inhabiting them, so the DZS is working to identify and prioritize which of those locations are best suited for the preservation of this species.

On our first expedition in June, we discovered that the otter populations the southcentral region of Armenia were significantly greater than expected. If these conclusions are accurate, it would be rare but exciting news in conservation work.

We returned in December and traveled to watershed areas in north and central Armenia to confirm the presence and relative abundance of otters in these regions During these investigations, we confirmed reports of otter conflict with humans in the area. Otters were found to be eating the trout in fish farms that would eventually be reintroduced to Lake Sevan as part of a native species restocking project.

Surveys conducted on foot of the areas near Arpi Lake National Park and Dilijan National Park showed signs of the presence of otters, including tracks, feces and other indicators such as partially eaten fish. These surveys, along with interviews with local residents, suggest that hunting by humans has also led to the decline of otters in the area.

Additionally, photographs downloaded from our trail camera along the Arpa River revealed not only otters, but illegal fishermen. Proof of this activity will help us greatly in making a case to establish a protected area. In addition to documenting illegal fishing in these areas, which depletes otter food sources, we’ve also documented illegal otter trapping efforts. We hope that if this illegal activity can be stopped, migration of otters from neighboring populations will help restore their numers in the area.

Plans for 2019 include reviewing additional trail camera images from Arpi Lake National Park, and surveying the remaining watersheds in Armenia. After completing this work, we will be able to provide a robust update on the status of otters in this country. With that information, we can continue to explore options to set up sustainable protected areas, as well as develop local education programs to enhance otter conservation in these important areas.

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

Families Find Joy at the Detroit Zoo During Stressful Times

Research tells us that when children experience major life stressors, such as domestic violence or homelessness, they can begin to shut down and stop taking in information. The Detroit Zoological Society has begun a new outreach campaign with our evening program, Nocturnal Adventures, that offers the opportunity for private groups to explore the Detroit Zoo through guided tours, activities and storytelling in a more personal setting.

More than 220 individuals who are coping with difficult life circumstances have had the opportunity to share a positive experience together during these private evenings at the Zoo through our partnerships with HAVEN, Turning Point, First Step, the Coalition on Temporary Shelter and the Macomb County Rotating Emergency Shelter Team. It is our hope that by fostering a sense of wonder and wow for the natural world within these children and their guardians, we can bring them some peace and even joy during their otherwise stressful and challenging times.

The program is made possible through a Kellogg Foundation grant, and includes transportation, dinner, a tour of the Zoo and an education program that focuses on the stories of rescued animals who have found sanctuary at the Detroit Zoo. These animals have either suffered injury in the wild or come from unfortunate circumstances requiring intervention and oftentimes specialized care. Toward the end of the evening, there is a craft activity for the children and then the family is able to sit around a bonfire and make s’mores together.

It’s important that we provide this opportunity for these families to visit the Zoo in a safe and less stressful environment. Each visit – which they may not have otherwise had the chance to have – allows these families to spend time together in nature and make observations of the magnificent animals who live at the Zoo.

We look forward to what the future will bring as we continue to build relationships within our community.

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

Animal Welfare: In the Dark – Aardvark Well-Being

If you share your home with an animal companion, have you ever wondered what he or she does when you are not home? Some people install cameras that allow them to use their phones to take a peek at what their dog is up to, or where the cat is spending her time. We also wonder about what animals do at the Detroit Zoo when we are not here, and this is especially true for nocturnal animals who are most active when we are sleeping. Aardvarks are one of those species, and the Detroit Zoological Society has been using cameras to study their behavior.

Aardvarks are native to sub-Saharan Africa, and not only are they primarily nocturnal, but they are also fossorial, meaning they dig and burrow underground. This makes them even more challenging to observe, as you can imagine! The four aardvarks who live at the Detroit Zoo are cared for by the night keeper unit, whose hours allow for expanded opportunities for animals, including those who are active later into the night. The staff come up with creative ideas to engage the aardvarks and stimulate natural behaviors.

We installed a number of infrared cameras in the habitat, allowing us to record what the aardvarks do and where they choose to spend their time. Initial research revealed that they had specific preferences, such as sleeping in culverts, which are reminiscent of underground burrows, and that their activity levels varied by individual. Roxaanne, one of the females, preferred to stay up much later than the others, for example. Additionally, we found that when the aardvarks engaged in more investigative behaviors, they had lower fecal glucocorticoid metabolite (FGM) concentrations. Decreased levels of FGMs have been correlated with lower stress levels and overall positive welfare. By taking behavior and hormones into account, we get a more comprehensive picture of the well-being of the aardvarks under different conditions.

Jennifer Hamilton, DZS animal welfare programs coordinator, worked with the animal care staff to develop a new project aimed to increase behavioral opportunities for the aardvarks, by specifically targeting more foraging and investigative behaviors. Jennifer and a small team of dedicated volunteers watched more than 220 hours of “aardvark television”. Talk about binge-watching reality TV! In addition to the behavioral data, the care staff once again collected daily fecal samples on each aardvark so that we could analyze them for FGMs.

Higher levels of investigative behaviors were again linked to lower levels of FGMs. This suggests that these types of behaviors are important for aardvarks and need to be encouraged. The behavior data also showed that foraging opportunities were used for longer periods of time when initially presented, but that investigative opportunities were used more as the night went on. As part of the project, the aardvarks were presented with seven opportunities once a week for eight weeks. We were able to confirm that the aardvarks did not lose interest over time, meaning that repeated interactions don’t bore them! Finally, the aardvarks’ use of the opportunities differed based on their location. The aardvarks have access to different spaces, which vary in their substrates and features. One of the spaces has a very large and deep dirt area, and the aardvarks spent less time engaged in the extra opportunities provided when in that habitat. This may be indicative of a flexible value system, with less value placed on additional opportunities when overall conditions may already be more stimulating. This is an important concept as we explore what type of choices are meaningful to animals and how to create environments that enable them to thrive.

– 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.

Humane Education: Recognizing Youth Making a Difference

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has a long history of helping animals. We trace our origins to a group of animals abandoned by a bankrupt circus that came through Detroit in 1883. Concerned citizens responded by generously giving food and money to provide for their care. Our commitment to Celebrating and Saving Wildlife is ongoing, magnified by the support of people in our community who are doing amazing things to help wildlife and wild places.

We want to celebrate the inspiring actions young people are taking to make a difference in the lives of animals. We want to recognize those who are spearheading their own initiatives, from creating awareness of animal issues to fostering empathy for animals through hands-on projects.

This year, to honor students in kindergarten through senior year of high school who are making a positive impact for animals, we are presenting the first annual Detroit Zoological Society Humane Youth Award. From now through November 5, 2018, you can nominate yourself or someone you know for this incredible honor. The nomination form can be found on our website. Nominees will be eligible for one of two categories: elementary school students or middle and high school students.

In 2001, the DZS created the Berman Academy for Humane Education with the focus of helping people help animals. One of the key tenets of humane education is that “we have a responsibility to consciously consider, respect, care for and protect all creatures and the environment”.

Our humane education programming extends far beyond the 125 acres of the Detroit Zoo. It focuses on building reverence and empathy for animals through hands-on, engaging experiences for guests and program participants and by providing opportunities for members of our communities to make informed, humane decisions in their everyday lives. Each and every one of us has the power to make choices and take action that positively impacts animals in large and small ways.

Learn more about the DZS’s humane education programs.

Animal Welfare: Seal of Approval

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is investigating the effect of foraging opportunities on the welfare of the seals who live at the Detroit Zoo. Foraging is a very important behavior category for animals, as it typically involves mentally and physically stimulating behaviors. Wild gray seals may spend up to two-thirds of their time searching for food. Although they do have well-developed hearing and sight, seals often rely on their extremely sensitive whiskers to locate the fish they eat. This is necessary as visual conditions underwater can be poor and swimming fish may not generate much noise as they move. Instead, the fish – and other prey items – create vibration trails in the water and these are the stimuli the seals’ whiskers detect. Research has shown that harbor seals can use their whiskers to distinguish between objects of different sizes and shapes – a skill they can use to select better prey items when hunting.

Seals living in zoos and aquariums don’t need to forage in quite the same way as they would in the wild, and thus may not engage in as many complex feeding behaviors. As part of her residency with the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics, Sara Zalewski worked with DZS staff to design a project examining the impact of three different ways to increase foraging behavior in the gray and harbor seals living at the Detroit Zoo. The seals were presented with fish frozen in ice, fish placed on top of a floating disk and sunken tubes the seals needed to manipulate to allow fish to fall out of holes in the tube. All three items were used to increase the amount of the work the seals would have to do to get to the food. As part of this research, Sara found that the seals differed by both species and individual in how they used the items.

The gray seals interacted with the items most when they were first presented with them, and the harbor seals’ level of interaction increased as time went on. The likely explanation for this is that the gray seals were younger and more dominant, and thus were able to use the items more easily. Once they had their fill of the food, they would lose interest and the harbor seals could begin to investigate the items. Dealing with dominance hierarchies can create challenges when providing animals with resources, and is therefore something we have to keep in mind when thinking about the welfare of all of the individuals.

Another challenge was getting the seals to use the items for longer periods of time. It makes sense that less interaction occurs without the motivation of obtaining food, so there is a need for more challenging devices that require the seals to use more of their foraging abilities. One unexpected outcome was that Georgie, one of the female gray seals, would sometimes use a floating disk as a resting place later in the day. However, it could not support her body weight, so she would lay on it on top of something else, such as a ledge in the pool. Other studies have shown that gray seals’ preferred prey, haul out sites, and feeding locations and techniques differ greatly between individuals. Finding ways that items can serve more than one purpose and allow each seal to make use of them as they choose are also goals.

Harbor seals are an especially playful species, including as adults. However, as animals age, play and exploratory behavior tend to decrease, regardless of the species. Additionally, decreases in their sensory abilities may occur. This means that for Sydney, the older male harbor seal, opportunities may be more challenging or potentially less engaging for him.

In order to create more engaging ways for all the seals to forage, Sara worked with DZS staff to refine the items and will observe Georgie and Jersey, the two gray seals, and Sydney, the harbor seal, to see how the modifications affect their behavior. DZS staff members are creating floating devices that the seals can use to rest – as well as interact with for access to fish – and are changing the design of the tubes so that they rest standing up, rather than lying flat on the bottom of the pool. This should make it a bit harder for the fish to fall out, and will be more stimulating for the seals as a result. Finally, Sydney will have some alone time with the items, to ensure the younger and more agile females don’t deplete the food before he has a chance to interact with the foraging devices. During your next visit, you may see these items in the seal pool at Arctic Ring of Life. Although we are only observing the seals at specific times, incorporating these types of behavioral opportunities is part of our daily comprehensive program of ensuring the environments for all the animals at the Detroit Zoo are ever changing and appropriately complex.

– 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.

Notes from the field: Mitigation of Human-Bear Conflicts in Armenia

The Detroit Zoological Society is conducting ongoing fieldwork in Armenia to assess the population of brown bears and mitigate conflicts that are occurring between humans and bears. Wildlife conservation is an important aspect of the DZS’s mission, and we are renowned for taking a compassionate approach in everything we do. A critical component of this is reducing human-wildlife conflicts around the world. As the human population and land development increases, people are coming into conflict with wildlife more and more from various factors such as predators eating livestock, wildlife raiding crops, and direct threats to human lives.

Armenia is a small country in the south Caucasus Mountains of west Asia between the Black and Caspian seas. Despite its size, Armenia is a hotspot for biodiversity and important for wildlife conservation because of its location at an intersection where wildlife converge from Eurasia, Africa and the Indian sub-continent.

Little is known about brown bears in Armenia; a recent survey of global human-bear conflicts did not include this data, which we think is important. As we are currently involved in wildlife conservation efforts for Eurasian otters in this country, the DZS initiated a project that would assess the distribution and impact of human-bear conflicts in Armenia by conducting interviews and placing trail cameras in and around villages.

Interviewees indicated that the conflict primarily arose due to bears entering orchards, eating fruit and destroying beehives. At times, bears also killed livestock and posed a threat to humans, and by all accounts, the conflict has increased over the last several years. Data from the trail cameras supported these reports. Many pictures showed bears in villages, including mother bears with twins or triplets, which can pose greater threats to humans, due to a mother bear’s instinct to protect her cubs.

There were also many pictures that showed potential competitors for food such as lynx and wolves, as well as prey of bears including wild boar and bezoar goats. Reports from a bezoar goat viewpoint in the area that was established by the World Wildlife Fund confirmed that bears were preying on young bezoar goats.

We are now working on a manuscript that will detail the level and impact of human-bear conflicts in Armenia and encourage research into conflict mitigation, which could potentially include electric fencing, remote-triggered lights and noisemakers and compensation to farmers for their losses. In addition, we recommend exploring bear-based eco-tourism programs, which could potentially add value from the bears’ presence to the villagers.

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

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.