Animal Welfare: Shelter from the (Winter) Storm

Baby, its cold outside! The New Year brought some very low temperatures to our area, which can be a challenge for humans and non-human animals alike. Detroit Zoological Society staff take a number of measures to ensure each animal living at the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center is comfortable year-round, including when temperatures dip into the negatives.

For some animals, this may mean spending time in behind-the-scenes areas where the temperature is controlled and any impacts of snowfall are removed. Cold-tolerant species, such as the red pandas or the Amur tiger, have the option to enjoy the winter weather or remain inside if they choose – this is part of what allows them to experience great welfare.

In many cases, we also make modifications to habitats to create heated areas and wind shelters – for example, the lions have heated rocks they’re often seeing lounging on – and we often add extra bedding materials to various habitats as well. This way, animals that are less comfortable being inside a building can still “find shelter from the storm”. These different options allow all of the animals to enjoy their home in the same way our heating systems, fireplaces and warm blankets keep us comfortable.

We should be thinking about these things for the animals who share our homes as well. Spending time outside needs to be done more cautiously in very cold weather, even for our furry friends. As domesticated species, they are not as well equipped to deal with harsh weather as wild animals are. There are many steps you can take to protect your companion animals from the cold, even if they do spend time outside.

Winter weather in Michigan often makes us appreciate the other seasons of the year, but there is still much to be enjoyed (and this is coming from someone who moved here from Florida!). We are still treated to beautiful, sunny days as fresh snow blankets everything around us. The 125 acres of the Detroit Zoo offer a great opportunity for us to experience the wonder of winter and marvel in the beauty of wildlife.

Many of the animals at the Detroit Zoo make the most of the cold weather, including the Japanese macaques (aptly also called snow monkeys), bison, otters, polar bears, wolves and bald eagles. You can also see animals including the giraffes, rhinos, gorillas and chimpanzees from viewing areas inside their buildings. The Free-Flight Aviary, Butterfly Garden, National Amphibian Conservation Center and Holden Reptile Conservation Center are great places to spend some time indoors during your visit. And although the Polk Penguin Conservation Center provides a more Antarctic climate for its feathery occupants, it also offers visitors a nice break from the blustery outdoors this time of year. Be sure to catch the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition in the Ford Education Center too – 100 winning images from the world’s largest and most prestigious wildlife photography competition. Come out and experience all of this for yourself – the Detroit Zoo is open all winter long!

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

Animal Welfare: Sleep is Good for You – and for Animals Too!

Staff from the Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare and Ethics have been observing the barn owl living at the Detroit Zoo to study his sleep patterns. Jim’s home in the Barn is a popular spot for visitors – Thoroughbred horses, donkeys, steer and pigs also live there. And while barn owls are nocturnal, spending the majority of the daylight hours sleeping, the noises and activity in the Barn may cause mild disturbances during the owl’s normal sleep cycle. Jim has lived at the Detroit Zoo for many years and appears to be healthy and happy, but it is important that we look at other measures of welfare.

Sleep patterns and sleep quality have been proposed as animal welfare monitoring tools, as links between well-being and sleep have been documented in humans. If you have gone through stressful times in your life, you may have experienced poor quality sleep, perhaps waking up more often. Similar effects have been found in other animals, such as rats and chimpanzees. However, poor sleep itself can also have an impact on welfare. Rats whose sleep cycles were disturbed by routine caretaking activities were found to groom themselves less and engage in fewer enrichment-related behaviors.

Sleep research typically makes use of electroencephalograms (EEGs) – which use small sensors attached to the head to measure brain activity – as well as other types of devices, which, as you can imagine, could be disruptive and rather challenging to use with animals living in zoos. We are therefore using behavioral and endocrine measures as non-invasive means to assess the welfare of the barn owl in relation to environmental factors such as noise.

We made observations of the barn owl’s behavior multiple times each day, primarily focusing on body and head position and degree of eye closure. We also recorded noise levels and other environmental factors. Fecal samples are being analyzed in our endocrinology lab by Dr. Grace Fuller, manager of applied animal welfare science and Jennifer Hamilton, applied animal welfare programs coordinator, to look for any changes in hormone levels. The samples were collected on a daily basis by animal care staff and prepared for analysis by our dedicated volunteers, whose help is invaluable!

The barn owl’s behavior could indicate how well he is sleeping and if any external factors are contributing to his sleep patterns. The hormone analysis – along with data on his food consumption – will be a way for us to validate the behavioral information we gathered. If we understand how to measure sleep quality non-invasively, we can apply this methodology to other species and expand our toolkit to monitor 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.

Animal Welfare: If You Build it, They Will Explore

Juvenile Madagascar giant hognose snakes recently moved into new homes in the Detroit Zoo’s Holden Reptile Conservation Center and indicators measured showed this had positive welfare impacts.

Although Madagascar giant hognose snakes can grow to 6 feet in length, the individuals that live at the Detroit Zoo are still rather small, and have been living behind the scenes since they hatched two years ago. They have a distinctive upturned snout, which they use to burrow and search through leaf litter and other ground substrates in search of food and shelter. Several months ago, the reptile department created new, more naturalistic habitats for the snakes, providing them with additional opportunities to display species-typical behaviors.

These larger spaces were outfitted with multiple types of shelter and natural substrates such as sand, mulch and cork bark. Complex spaces with ample options for making choices can contribute to positive welfare and one of our recent residents at the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare and Ethics, Marisa Spain, decided to conduct a study examining the impact that these new habitats had on the snakes. Little attention has been given to the welfare of reptiles, and as such, less information is available about conditions in which they thrive than for mammals and birds. Marisa studied the snakes before and after they moved into the new spaces, spending hours recording their movements. In their new habitats, the Madagascar giant hognose snakes significantly increased their rates of tongue flicking, which is indicative of exploratory behavior. Similar increases have been seen in other reptile species and categorized as positive indicators of welfare. The snakes also increased how much time they spent burrowing, which is a species-typical behavior now better supported by their enhanced environment. The snakes exhibited more active behaviors in general, something we were hoping to see, as activity levels can indicate how engaged an animal is with its environment. The snakes also showed an increase in behavioral diversity, which is also being used as an indicator of positive welfare.

Overall, we were thrilled to see that the move to their new homes was a valuable change for the snakes. Reptiles perform activities for the same reasons other animals do; for example, to seek food, to explore and to find comfortable places to rest. Because of these welfare studies, we have a better understanding of how reptiles living in the care of humans are faring. All individual animals have welfare needs and while it is our responsibility to ensure those needs are met, it is also incredibly rewarding to see the animals thrive.

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