Creating Environmental Stewards in the Amazon

Imagine if you were a teacher and your outdoor classroom was the Amazon rainforest. Endless biodiversity of every species of plant and animal you can imagine exists just a step outside your classroom walls. However, your teacher preparation was at a university in a city, and you have no idea where to begin teaching about ecology beyond what you’ve read in a teacher prep textbook. On top of these challenges, the only way to reach the community you’ve been assigned to work in is to take a boat down the Amazon River. The trip takes several hours, which means you’re only home on weekends and rarely have an opportunity to learn with or connect to other teachers.

Such is the case for the dedicated employees of CONAPAC, the Civil Association for Conservation of the Peruvian Amazon Environment, which was formed in July 1990 by a group of teachers, forestry engineers, and employees of the travel operator Explorama Lodges in Iquitos, Peru. Registered with the Peruvian government, its purpose is the conservation of the Peruvian Amazon primary rainforest. Though the staff is small, it serves those most in need of education and other tools for sustainable living in the rainforest, with the help of Explorama Lodges. The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has been a partner in this important conservation and education program for nearly 20 years.

As part of the services and support CONAPAC provides partner communities, an annual teacher workshop brings educators in these rural, remote communities together to learn. Earlier this year, Karen Purcell from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology returned for the second time to provide professional development for these teachers. Fluent in Spanish and passionate about birds, she delivers dynamic, hands-on workshops that demonstrates what teachers can do with their students by having the teachers do it with her. Guides from Explorama Lodges, who are also bird experts, assisted by guiding the teachers to understand how binoculars work, how they add excitement to bird observation, and how to identify common species.

Karen created a safe place for the teachers to share their attitudes towards birds, addressing common misconceptions and dispelling myths and legends that often cause people to dislike or even dispatch birds. She prepared them to be citizen scientists, gathering and sharing data on the species they see most in theircommunities. The teachers continue to document their successes and encourage one another through a massive group chat in WhatsApp. While there may not be internet access in these communities, almost all the teachers have a cell phone that has service and a means to charge the phone by generator or solar panel collected energy. Not a week goes by without a teacher posting photos of his or her students looking for birds, drawing them, building replica nests or some other activity. Karen and the team from CONAPAC are all on the group chat, documenting the progress in real time of how the workshop content is being implemented.

In early November, DZS staff returned to the rainforest to assist with end-of-the-year evaluations in each community. Teams of CONAPAC staff, Iquitos Board of Education representatives, local environmental experts and DZS staff traveled to each community to ensure school supplies are being utilized, children and teachers are attending school regularly, and that the teachers are implementing their skills and concepts shared with them during the workshops. The artwork, poems, field work and skits that the communities shared with the teams provided solid evidence that the spring workshops were a tremendous success.

Professional development is an essential part of any profession. The CONAPAC teacher workshops are a vital part of creating the next generation of environmental stewards, providing teachers and students the information and passion needed for protecting the rainforest for generations to come. This year’s workshop was supported through the generous financial support of JBQ Charitable Foundation and Explorama Lodges.  An international donor-base further provides financial support to provide annual teacher and student school supplies. To learn more or to participate in these efforts, visit https://detroitzoo.org/support/give/adopt-a-school/.

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

Don’t Trash Your TV – Recycle it Instead

If you’re daunted by dusty DVD players, tossed-aside televisions or rejected radios taking up space in the basement, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) can help give them new life. The DZS is hosting its first-ever America Recycles Day electronics recycling event at the Detroit Zoo on Thursday, November 15.

Michigan’s recycling rate is among the lowest in the country at only 15 percent. Gov. Rick Snyder set a goal of doubling that number, which would get us closer to (but still below) the national average of 35 percent. People may be shocked when they hear how low we rank – especially when they know there’s so much more we can do.

Old electronics – including radios, printers, computers, televisions and cell phones – can be dropped off for recycling from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the large 10 Mile Road parking lot near the gazebo on November 15. Sustainability talks will be held throughout the day to highlight the DZS’s award-winning initiatives and share important information about the impacts of waste on the environment.

For example, cell phone production – and its reliance on an ore found in Africa called coltan – is damaging wild habitats and decimating populations of gorillas and other animals. A 2:30 p.m. talk at the Great Apes of Harambee will dive deeper into how recycling old cell phones can help animals in the wild. Additional talks will be held at 11:30 a.m. near the guanaco habitat, where staff will discuss the DZS’s anaerobic digester and how it is annually turning 500 tons of animal waste into energy. A 1:30 p.m. talk at the Edward Mardigian Sr. River Otter Habitat will focus on plastic pollution and how the DZS is keeping 60,000 plastic bottles out of the waste stream annually by no longer selling bottled water. In addition, an activity in the underwater gallery of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. will highlight the dangers animals face due to plastic waste.

While the following items aren’t a part of our electronics recycling event and can’t be recycled curbside, here are some options you have to still help the environment:

  • Batteries: Batteries contain heavy metals and chemicals. Throwing them out with the trash can contaminate the soil and pollute water. Many hardware stores will accept your household batteries prevent them from ending up in landfills. You can even take an old car battery to your local auto parts store to be recycled, too. Earth 911 can help you find locations near you to bring your old batteries.
  • Running shoes: If your athletic shoes have seen better days, there are a few things you can do instead of tossing them in the trash. If they’re still in decent shape, you can donate them to your local thrift store or to One World Running. One World Running is a nonprofit organization that distributes lightly used running shoes to those in need all over the world. If your shoes are completely worn out, you can donate them to Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe program by dropping them off at any Nike store. Through this program, your old shoes will be recycled into things such as running tracks, underlay material for basketball courts or padding for football goal posts. The shoes can be any brand to be donated to Reuse-a-Shoe.
  • Holiday lights: It’s almost that time of year – you know, the time to take out the holiday lights just to discover they don’t work anymore? If that’s the case, bring them to the Detroit Zoo during Wild Lights for free holiday light recycling. Or, you can ship them to Holiday LEDs and they will take the burnt-out bulbs off your hands! If you choose either of these methods, Holiday LEDs will provide you with a coupon for 15 percent off HolidayLEDs lights.

Even though America Recycles Day is celebrated once a year, it’s important to consider the world around us and what we can do to help in our daily lives.  Learn more about our award-winning commitment to sustainability here.

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: The Sensory World of Wildlife

What sounds do you hear when you wake up? I sometimes hear my dog gently urging me to get out of bed. Sometimes I hear a car alarm, which is less pleasant. What do feel when you wake up? For me, it’s my toasty warm sheets and if I’m lucky, I can reach my hand out and pet my dog on the head. What do you smell? What do you see? What about during the day, or at the end of the day? We experience sensations all the time, even when we aren’t awake to realize it. What do those sensations mean to you and how do they affect how you behave?

Animals experience all of the things we do, but not necessarily in the same way. For example, depending on how their sensory systems function, they may smell things much more strongly than we do. A dog’s sense of smell is approximately 40 times stronger than ours. This means what odors we notice may be negligible compared to what they do. While humans typically rely on their eyesight as their primary sense, many animals see differently than we do. Birds and reptiles can see in the ultraviolet range. Raptors can see much further than we can, and some animals see more of what’s around them due to the placement of their eyes. Some animals, such as pit vipers, sense things using infrared sensors, which allows them to find their prey using heat signals. All of this means that animals experience the world very differently than we do, and this can impact their welfare. The senses of animals are essential for every aspect of their daily lives, from finding food and shelter to recognizing others as friend or foe.

If we are concerned about the well-being of animals, we must be aware of how they experience the world around them. We must also be considerate of how our actions can affect their perception. Animals living in their natural habitat are becoming more vulnerable to our actions, from birds colliding with buildings that are lit up at night, to frogs who have to compete with man-made noises to hear one another.

When it comes to animals living in the care of humans, this can also prove to be a challenge. We don’t know enough about how other species perceive their world, but we use the knowledge we do have to make the best possible decisions. For animals living in zoos and aquariums, we have a lot to consider. Ultimately, we are the architects of the homes for other species. Imagine if a zebra was in charge of designing your home. What if a snake built your office? The field of sensory ecology, which is the study of how organisms acquire, process, and respond to information from their environment, continues to grow. We use that information to help create habitats at the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center that provide animals with positive experiences. Additionally, we take the sensory perception of animals into consideration when we plan special events and construction projects, as sounds, sights and smells may impact individual animals. We also think about what animals live near each other. Can an animal feel threatened or positively stimulated by the sight, sound or smell of another species?

In our own lives, we are aware of which sensations make our experiences positive and which don’t. We are often in control of those experiences, or we know they are temporary. Animals may not have those opportunities, and it is our responsibility to ensure we are creating positive experiences and minimizing our own contributions to impacts on welfare resulting from sensory inputs. Take a moment to think about the experiences of the animals who share your home with you. Is there room for improvement? If so, come up with ways to mitigate any negative sensory impacts. Also, take time to think about how the animals as the Zoo feel if people yell at them or create conditions that alters their ability to use their senses.

Those of us who care for animals for a living have to be extremely sensitive to the ways animals perceive their environment. This important concept is part of what the Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics teaches each year during our workshops. We immerse the participants in animal habitats in various ways in order to change our own human perspective. The understanding each person gains from these experiences is an invaluable part of their toolkit to further the welfare of every animal with whom they work and live.

– 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.

Veterinary Care: Repairing a Warthog’s Fractured Tusk

The most distinctive features of warthogs are the gently curving tusks that protrude from either side of their face. Each has two pairs of tusks, which are actually constantly growing canine teeth, with the upper pair usually much longer than the lower.

During a recent routine examination of a 3-year-old female warthog named Sansa (yes, after Game of Thrones) by veterinary staff at the Detroit Zoological Society’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex, we noticed that she had fractured one of her lower tusks below the gumline. We couldn’t see the tooth, so we used a metal dental instrument to locate the end of the tooth and then took a radiograph. We could tell that the fracture had occurred very recently and were concerned that the open end of the tooth might allow bacteria to enter. If an infection reaches the base of the tooth, extraction may become necessary, and we wanted to do whatever we could to avoid this.

The size and shape of a warthog’s tusk is similar to the canine tooth of a domestic horse, and we knew that our equine dentist frequently treats his patients for broken canines. We asked Dr. Tom Johnson to come to the Detroit Zoo to help us repair her tooth. Her follow-up exam was less than three weeks since her first exam and already the tooth had grown enough that it was visible at the gumline, which made treatment much easier than expected. We started by cleaning the surface of the tooth and could see that the opening was very small, making infection less likely to occur.

The procedure was very much like having a cavity filled: Dr. Johnson used a dental drill to cup out the area around the opening and then used dental materials to seal and fill the tooth. The filling will remain protected within this recessed area while the tooth continues to grow and be used. The radiographs show that there is very good blood supply to the tooth and we expect that Sansa will be able to heal completely now that the tooth has been repaired. To be certain, we will examine her again in a year, and will take another radiograph to check for any concerns.

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

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.