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.

Animal Welfare: Sounds and Sights in the World of Rhinos

Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) staff are studying how the Southern white rhinoceroses who live at the Detroit Zoo respond to different types of stimuli and how this may influence their welfare. Rhinos have a well-developed sense of hearing and can hear noise frequencies lower than the average human can. Sounds may also be up to twice as loud to them as they are to us. This means that the way the world sounds to a rhino is very different than what we hear. In comparison to their auditory capabilities, their eyesight is believed to be relatively poor. This may mean that they are less able to discern objects around them and that things that happen in their environment might be more startling to them. As our sensory abilities differ from those of rhinos, we have to work to increase our understanding of what environmental factors are meaningful to them. The question isn’t just what is it like to be a rhino living at the Detroit Zoo, but what is it like to be a rhino at the Detroit Zoo experiencing great welfare?

We began observing Tamba and Jasiri in 2017, both inside their building and in the outdoor habitat. We explored differences in their behavior between these spaces and in conjunction with the number of visitors present. We noted that the rhinos showed increased signs of positive welfare when presented with more choices in their visual and auditory environment. Based on this information, we designed a study to investigate specific factors that may affect the well-being of the rhinos inside their building, including stimuli from visitors. In this space, noises are amplified and the rhinos are in closer proximity to visitors, compared to their outdoor habitat.

The study took place in four phases between December of 2017 and February of 2018. During the first phase, no changes were made, allowing us to obtain baseline behavior and hormone levels for the rhinos. This gives us a point of comparison to assess any effects of changes we make. In the second phase, we increased the distance between the rhinos and visitors using a rope barrier. The larger buffer space changed both the visual and auditory environment for the rhinos by having visitors further away without reducing the amount of space available to the rhinos. During the third phase, we added large sound abatement panels, which reduce noise levels through added insulation, along the back wall of the visitor area and in the space occupied by the rhinos. Finally, in the last phase, we installed additional visual barriers, providing the rhinos with the choice to block their view of visitors.

During each phase, we collected behavioral data and fecal samples daily. Changes in behavior and concentrations of corticosterone in the fecal samples help us decipher how the rhinos responded to the changes we made. We are currently analyzing all of this data, and so far, it appears that both rhinos showed increased behavioral diversity – which is a measure of the variety and frequency of behaviors – with the modifications that were made. Animals demonstrating higher behavioral diversity are believed to be experiencing better welfare as they are more motivated to engage in a larger number of behaviors. This may be a reflection of an environment that better meets the animals’ needs.

For Jasiri and Tamba, one of the behaviors that increased in frequency is what we call object manipulation. The rhinos spend time interacting with various objects provided to them to stimulate them both physically and mentally. Both rhinos definitely like their “back scratcher” and Tamba is partial to making bells chime! This may seem counterintuitive if noise levels can impact their well-being, but it really is about choice. Tamba is in control of making those sounds – when and for how long – which is very different than having to listen to sounds you don’t enjoy. Jennifer Hamilton, DZS animal welfare programs coordinator, explains it really well. As she says, imagine that you are at a stoplight and someone in the car next to you is blasting music that you don’t like – how does that make you feel? However, when a song you do like comes on the radio, you might just turn up the volume. The good thing is that Jasiri doesn’t seem to mind any of Tamba’s “concerts”! The rhinos also spent more time investigating their indoor habitat, which they do by smelling and moving around more. This is a space they know well, so this increase in activity isn’t due to novelty. This may instead be telling us that they were more comfortable in their habitat. We also noted a new social behavior we had not previously observed.  Rhinos often spar with one another, locking horns to determine dominance. Tamba and Jasiri would rest while standing with their horns together, without any other movement typical of sparring. Although we aren’t sure what this “horn holding” means, we are interpreting it as a friendly and positive social behavior. Once we have the full results, we will be better informed about environmental features that enhance rhinoceros welfare. When we apply what we learn, we can have a direct impact on making sure Tamba and Jasiri are thriving.

– 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: Protecting Michigan’s Only True Venomous Snake

Michigan is the last stronghold for the massasauga rattlesnake – even though the species was listed as Threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are still several healthy populations throughout the state. The Detroit Zoological Society oversees the Species Survival Plan for this animal through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). These comprehensive population management plans work to ensure the sustainability of healthy, genetically diverse and demographically varied captive animal populations.

The DZS and other facilities have participated in an ongoing research study at the Edward Lowe Foundation in Cassopolis, Mich., for the past 10 years. Recently, a team from the Detroit Zoological Society, which also included Jeff Jundt, curator of reptiles, and Dr. Wynona Shellabarger, a veterinarian for the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo, participated in the 2018 Eastern Massassauga Rattlesnake Species Survival Plan annual meeting and conducted fieldwork in western Michigan.

This fieldwork consists of spending up to eight hours a day searching for snakes in their native habitat. When one is found, it is sent to a lab on grounds for a physical, which includes being weighed, measured, photographed, sexed, tagged with what is called a passive integrated transponder – if it didn’t have one already – and having blood collected. If the snake is female, it’s given an ultrasound to determine if she’s pregnant. Photographs of any distinct markings as well as the transponder can identify an animal throughout their life if they are located again. GPS data allows the snake to be returned to the exact spot where it was found earlier in the day.

All of the information gathered throughout the week helps draw a picture of the natural history of this species, guide best practices for the land management of the Edward Lowe Foundation and gauge the overall health of the individuals and the population. This year, even though the weather was not as cooperative as past years, the group was able to locate and conduct physicals on 36 snakes, 14 of which were new to the study. The DZS plans to continue leading this important research for years to come. To stay up to date on all things massasauga rattlesnake-related, follow the Species Survival Plan on Facebook.

Also, please join us as we celebrate all things that slither on World Snake Day, Monday July 16, in the Detroit Zoo’s Holden Reptile Conservation Center.

– Rae Karpinski is a reptile zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the “Field”: Expedition to the Detroit Zoo’s Otter Habitat

The Detroit Zoological Society conducts field conservation work all over the world; however, a recent venture required traveling only a few hundred feet from my office. Preparatory research for an upcoming trip to Armenia to preserve otters involved traversing the Edward Mardigian Sr. River Otter Habitat at the Detroit Zoo. Otters are classified as Endangered in Armenia, but there is no current data on their status. As part of this project, we will be assessing the status of these animals across Armenia and identifying important areas for protection. Early on, the focus will be on conducting sign surveys along rivers and streams, looking for traces of otters. Becoming familiar with otter tracks and feces was essential before this fieldwork could begin; where better to do such research than inside the otter habitat at the Detroit Zoo?

Armenia is part of the greater Caucasus biodiversity hotspot, and otters are an important part of the diverse fauna. The otters in Armenia are Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra), a different species from the North American otters (Lontra Canadensis) that are present at the Detroit Zoo. However, both otter species are similarly sized and they both have diets that consist primarily of fish, so their feces is likely to be similar.

Detroit Zoological Society animal care staff shared helpful identifying information inside the otter habitat, including the variability and size of the feces, which were less compact than one might expect. Scratch marks often accompany the feces, which also often occurs with snow leopards. In addition, because the habitat at the Zoo is cleaned regularly, it was clear how quickly the feces can degrade. Proper estimation of the age of feces can be important for estimating animal density.

We’ll be sure to report back with findings following our research in Armenia.

– Dr. Paul Buzzard is the field conservation officer for the Detroit Zoological Society, which is involved in wildlife conservation efforts on six continents.

Education: Teachers Line Up for Summer Institute at the Detroit Zoo

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) annually hosts a Summer Teacher Institute where groups of dedicated educators spend six days at the Detroit Zoo, revitalizing their teaching methods and building a diverse professional network at the wildest place in town.

The DZS education team will once again be joined this summer by Rebecca Dyasi, a national expert in inquiry-based learning and a master of science concepts and content, to co-facilitate the two-week workshop. Rebecca challenges workshop participants to ask questions, make observations and verbalize their learning experience before helping them connect what they’re doing to state-mandated curriculum. The teachers have an opportunity to be learners, novices, experts and mentors all during the same workshop.

Last year, workshop participants planned and conducted investigations on plants, pollinators, animal behavior, the properties of water and more. Each discovery led to more questions and excitement as participants explored the Zoo’s 125 acres and collected data. Small groups of teachers worked together to analyze their data and share results through short presentations, reinforcing what they learned and experienced.

After the workshop, the network of educators can stay in contact through webinars and in-person gatherings. Having a community of professionals to support each other through the challenges of transitioning from a traditional classroom model to one that is more student-driven greatly increases the success rate. Last year, many of the teachers continued to work with the DZS education team and brought their students to the Zoo for a Learning Lab and Zoo experience in the fall and winter, capitalizing on a time when crowds are lower and animals are often more active.

The 2018 institute will be held July 24-26 and July 31-August 2. Space is limited; for more information or to register, click here.

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

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.

Humane Education: Monitoring Frogs with Children’s Village

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has conducted programming with Oakland County Children’s Village for more than eight years, instilling reverence and respect for wildlife and wild places through gardening, education and conservation programs. Children’s Village provides a safe, structured environment for children and young adults that includes secure detention, residential treatment and shelter care services. Our collaboration initially began with a humane education-focused gardening program, which is still flourishing, but our programming has evolved over the years and we’ve had the opportunity to work with hundreds of young people there in various capacities.

One of our most recent endeavors was conducting FrogWatch USA training with some of the teen girls that we work with. FrogWatch USA is an amphibian conservation and citizen science collaborative effort among the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums throughout the U.S. Citizen science programs teach volunteers to collect data using the same protocol and methods, so all data can be counted as part of a scientific research project. One scientist working alone could never collect the amount of information a group of trained citizens can.

I recently went to Children’s Village along with Rebecca Johnson, the DZS’s associate curator of amphibians, to facilitate the FrogWatch USA training onsite. Rather than a traditional four-hour training, which takes place in one sitting, we divided up the training to take place over the course of two days in late March. The girls learned all about amphibians, how to identify frogs and toads by their breeding calls and what information we need to include on the data sheet when we go out and survey. We discussed how monitoring helps provide important information for each site, such as the diversity, population size and health of the particular frog or toad species that are present; whether or not there are rare or nonindigenous species in the area and what the overall health of the wetland is. Knowing which species are present at a site can even help improve the management and protection of a wetland and all species living there.

The girls have been working hard to learn the different frog and toad calls – they’ve been listening to a practice CD and identifying key characteristics that help to distinguish the different calls from one another. For example, a Western chorus frog call sounds like someone is running their fingernails along a fine-toothed comb and a wood frog sounds similar to the quacking of a duck.

Becky and I have accompanied the girls on their first outing to conduct surveys. This work must take place at least a half hour after sunset, so we went to our selected site at 8:30 p.m. There were 10 girls, three Children’s Village staff members and the two of us. When we arrived at our designated location, we remained still and quiet for two minutes per FrogWatch USA protocol, and then we listened and collected data for three minutes immediately following.

We heard a few different birds calling and something rustling in the reeds, which, much to our excitement, turned out to be a muskrat who eventually swam across the pond. A few of us even saw the space station travel overhead! But unfortunately, no frog or toad calls were heard. Fortunately, we’ve seen many American toads and even some tree frogs in the almost nine years that we’ve been facilitating the gardening program onsite, so we know we’ll hear calls soon. In the interim, it’s important for us to note on our data sheet that we didn’t hear anything, just as it will be important for us to document the calls that we will eventually hear.

To have a meaningful impact, we’ll need to collect data at least eight different times – no more than twice in one week – through August. Becky and I are planning to go out for another evening observation soon. After that, the girls and Children’s Village staff will continue on their own. I’m excited to see what unfolds this summer. It’s been an amazing experience for all involved thus far.

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

Education: Program Benefits Individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has partnered with the Alzheimer’s Association-Greater Michigan Chapter to bring its Community Connect program to the Detroit Zoo. This program provides a broad range of socialization and culturally significant events and outings for people living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, as well as for their care partners. As part of this effort, we developed “Minds in the Wild”, a fun learning experience at the Detroit Zoo that includes a tour, conversations with animal care staff and hands-on activities that allow for individuals to practice gross motor movement while exploring the animal world.

The Alzheimer’s Association works on a local, national and global level to not only find a cure for and prevent this debilitating and fatal disease, but also to provide care and support for the more than 5 million people affected by it.

We have seen the impacts for the people who participate. One gentleman shared a story of how discouraged he felt when he was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, but he added that this program has given him a reason to leave the house. He now looks forward to attending each month, and enthusiastically participates in the activities as he builds relationships with DZS staff.

Just as each animal in the care of the Detroit Zoological Society receives individualized attention, our education programs focus on meeting the needs of all of our learners. Every student – from toddlers to seniors and all ability levels – can experience the impact of creating connections with wildlife and wild places.