Foster Empathy While Spending Time Indoors

The days may be shorter, the weather colder, and our lives might be spent mostly indoors during this time of the year, but it can still be a valuable, educational time for families. There are a number of activities we can do with our children to follow and support the Detroit Zoological Society’s humane education goals of fostering empathy for others and developing respect for wildlife and wild places.

Empathy is the ability to understand another person or animal’s experience from their perspective. It’s being able to place yourself in some else’s shoes/paws and mirror what they are feeling which, in turn, is known to increase positive social behaviors. While it can be innate for some of us, empathy is actually a learned behavior.

One way to help nurture empathy in children is through stories, which can help them process thoughts and information. Stories allow us to put on different hats, try out new experiences, think through future actions and develop our moral compass – all of which can be done from the comfort of our own home.

We do this in a number of our humane education programs offered by the Detroit Zoological Society. We share experiences of people helping animals and books that enable us to explore the world around us from an animal’s perspective. Even after a story has been read, there’s still an opportunity to continue building empathy by taking action.

For example, you could read “Stranger in the Woods”, a beautiful picture book about local wildlife, and then build a wildlife-friendly snowperson by incorporating decorations that can feed animals. Examples include a carrot nose, potato eyes, a birdseed scarf, etc.

After reading “How to Heal a Broken Wing”, a book about helping an injured bird who flew into a window, you could make window decals to prevent bird collisions. You could also learn how to humanely deter ants from your home after reading “Hey Little Ant”, a book that sheds light on an ant’s perspective. Fostering empathy in children can start at a young age. Together, we can help instill values of walking softly and treating the Earth’s creatures gently.

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

Celebrate your Sweetie Sustainably this Valentine’s Day

While Valentine’s Day is usually a sea of pink and red, let’s add some green to our celebrations this year. Date nights and gifts that show your significant other how much you care can easily include a little love shown to the Earth as well. Options abound for eco-friendly ways to revel in the romance.

Date Night. Embrace the weather and spend time in nature by bundling up and heading outside. Go skiing, ice skating, find a local winter festival, or head to the Detroit Zoo with your significant otter for a Valentine’s Day date.

Cook at home. Some restaurants require reservations weeks in advance. Instead of hitting the town, cook dinner together at home using locally sourced food. It’s a fun activity that’s more intimate than being surrounded by other couples; plus, it will save you money. Finding fresh ingredients can be challenging during Michigan winters, but a trip to your local farmers’ market could produce everything you need. Many vegetables are ripe this time of year in their extended season, including onions, potatoes and carrots – learn more about what grows when in this handy guide. Get creative in the kitchen by finding recipes incorporating these in-season foods. And don’t forget about maple syrup! It’s a delicious staple of Michigan’s agriculture industry and can be tapped as early as February. This can make for a delicious breakfast in bed for your partner.

Gifts for your sweetie and the environment. This year, consider giving your loved one something a little more environmentally friendly. Jewelry and perfume can be expensive – and toxic. Instead, choose a gift that shows your love for both your partner and the Earth. Here are some ideas:

  • A potted plant or flower seeds for those with a green thumb
  • An indoor herb garden to spice things up for those who love to cook
  • A sustainably sourced bouquet of flowers – either from a local grower and/or one that uses green methods of growth and production
  • Reusable snack bags and travel cups for those always on the go
  • A “date night jar” with ideas for outings to pick at random throughout the year
  • Fair trade candy and chocolate

Skip the pricey wrapping paper – instead, reduce, reuse and recycle! Reduce the cost of wrapping paper by purchasing reusable gift bags. Reuse your cookie tins and jars to present a gift instead of cardboard boxes. Recycle old newspapers and magazines as a sustainable alternative to fancy paper. And for this category, let’s add another “R” – romance. A hand-written card can be more sentimental than a store-bought greeting card.

Crafts for children. Children’s arts and crafts can be good for the environment too. Skip the messy glitter and make a heart-shaped bird feeder! It’s a fun craft to do together while fostering respect for wildlife and providing food for birds. Other options for home-made gifts for the young people in your life rather than pricey presents include friendship bracelets made out of colorful yarn or snow globes made out of recycled baby food containers.

There are countless creative ways we can demonstrate our devotion to each other and to the Earth on Valentine’s Day. Love is in the air, so let’s keep the air clean and safe for all of us who share this planet.

Students Showcase Sustainable Solutions in 2019 Green Prize Competition

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is seeking inventive ideas from local students who wish to join us on our Green Journey toward a more sustainable future. K-12 classes, green teams and schools in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties may enter the DZS’s 2019 Green Prize competition now through March 1 and be eligible for cash prizes and a field trip to the Detroit Zoo.

Students are encouraged to research green practices – from incorporating renewable solar energy to eliminating plastic water bottles – and then create and implement ideas that lead to a better tomorrow. The winners of the 2018 competition were members of the West Bloomfield High School EARTH Club, who came together as a team to determine how much energy the science department was using and develop strategies to reduce this rate. Ultimately, they switched to LED lights and installed solar panels to completely power the department. Their project – from inception to execution – exemplified environmental stewardship.

To enter the DZS’s 2019 Green Prize competition, students are asked to complete the following:

  • Identify an environmental or sustainability issue
  • Propose a solution that will address the issue
  • List the material and labor needed to implement the solution
  • Describe the positive impact this solution would have on the environment
  • Submit a video, artistic rendering of the project or any other method that portrays your green journey

Prizes will be awarded for first, second and third place. First-place winners will receive $1,000 and a class field trip to the Detroit Zoo, which includes an in-depth look at the DZS’s Greenprint initiatives that are already in action. Second-place winners will receive $600; third-place winners will receive $400. All entries will receive a certificate of participation for their efforts in making the world a greener place.

The top three entries will be selected and notified on March 15. The winners will be showcased during GreenFest, the DZS’s celebration of Earth Day on April 27 at the Detroit Zoo. Visitors will have the chance to see how these students are paving the way to a more sustainable environment.

All 2019 Green Prize entries should be submitted to rhandbury@dzs.org

The Detroit Zoological Society is a leader in environmentally sustainability, with all operations guided by our award-winning Greenprint initiative. As part of our Green Journey, we are working to create a healthier environment for all animals, visitors and the planet. We’re doing this through initiatives such as our waste-to-energy anaerobic digester, keeping 60,000 plastic bottles out of the waste stream annually by no longer selling bottled water, using permeable pavement in our new pathways and parking lot, and installing a solar panel system called the smartflower. Learn what you can do to lessen your footprint by downloading our Shades of Green Guide.

Answer the Call – Gorillas are on the Line

Grab your cell phone (if it’s not already in your hand) and go to your most recent calls. Scroll through your list. How many calls did you receive? How many minutes did you spend talking? What about texts – how many have you sent today? What if I told you, that every time you grab your phone, whether it be for a call, a text or to browse your social media accounts, you’ve held the fate of a gorilla in the palm of your hand?

A little heavier than you thought? The topic – not the gorilla. While gorillas can weigh upwards of 500 pounds, a cell phone typically only weighs about 4 ounces. But the actual weight of this issue is so much larger than what can be measured with a scale.

While materials like plastic, nickel, copper and zinc are common in most cell phones, there’s one rare and valuable mineral, coltan, in all cell phones and small electronics that directly impacts the survival of gorillas. Eighty percent of the world’s supply of coltan is found in Central Africa, which is prime gorilla habitat. Imagine having the cell phone equivalent of gold in your backyard. There would be a lot of people showing up at your house with shovels in their hands and dollar signs in their eyes. That’s the situation for coltan and the gorillas.

Coltan is luring miners into the forests, which causes trouble for these animals. Their habitat is becoming logged and dug up so the miners can reach the coltan, and people are bringing in diseases, which the gorillas can easily contract. People are also illegally hunting gorillas – either to eat, sell or trade for more supplies. The more cell phones people buy, the more coltan needs to be mined, and more gorillas are becoming homeless. With their numbers dwindling in the wild as it is, let’s work together to save them.

The Detroit Zoological Society is partnering with other accredited zoos within the Association of Zoos & Aquariums to launch a cellphone recycling program from February 1 through April 30. Our collective goal is to gather 10,000 mobile phones and engage 10,000 children and community members to help save gorillas. In addition to mobile phones, we will also accept iPads, iPods, cameras, chargers, etc., because they, too, contain coltan.

Fewer than 20 percent of old cell phones are recycled. So, whether yours are collecting dust in the garage or in a junk drawer somewhere in your house, consider bringing your old phones and electronics to the Detroit Zoo during the next three months. Donation bins will be set up at the Main Entrance; you can also deliver them to the guest relations associates manning the ticket booths. We’re also looking for local schools to join us in this venture and make a direct impact on saving species. If your school or classroom is interested in helping us protect gorillas, you can email cvankampen@dzs.org. Also, mark your calendar for our World Gorilla Day celebration at the Detroit Zoo on Tuesday, September 24.

– Aaron Jesue is a zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field: Seabird Research Reveals Impact of Ice Decline in Antarctica

Where to begin!? I recently returned from a six-week expedition to Antarctica, living and working at the U.S. Palmer Research Station to study the populations of penguins and other seabirds. I’m still in awe of the whole experience.

Palmer Station is the base for a long-term ecological research program, where scientists are studying all aspects of the Antarctic ecosystem. The fieldwork conducted there through the Polar Oceans Research Group has been ongoing for 40 years, resulting in the collection of a lot of data. While scientists have determined that the climate is severely warming and affecting all regions in the world, the greatest effects are seen in Antarctica. Declining sea ice levels are negatively impacting many species of wildlife that depend on it.

Sea ice is crucial to the Antarctic ecosystem, and its loss can have profound effects. One example of this can be found by examining a small crustacean called krill. This animal feeds on the algae that grows underneath the ice and is a primary staple in the diets of many species, including penguins. Declining sea ice means fewer krill, which means less food for the fish that eat them and as a result, a depleted food supply for penguins and the rest of the food chain.

Sea ice losses can occur from both warmer air above it and warmer water below, and increased air and water temperatures means more snow. This makes it difficult for penguins to build their nests and when the snow melts, the nests are at risk of flooding and these birds may find their eggs floating in puddles.

Upon my arrival at Palmer Station, we began conducting a breeding chronology study with two colonies of Adélie penguins on two local islands. We selected a few nests to observe throughout the season – our observations included periods of birds laying their eggs, the chicks hatching, and the chicks heading off on their own. These nests were monitored daily for predation and for the exact dates of chicks hatching. We also chose nests to be assessed for body condition and egg morphometric data. We took measurements and weights of birds and eggs to obtain a sampling data size of a larger population.

As part of another aspect of the program, we counted the number of individual birds in colonies of Adélie, gentoo and chinstrap penguins. One island was home to 6,000 gentoo penguins! Boy, did my thumb hurt that day from using a clicker counter. Unfortunately, most Adélie colonies were in decline from recent years’ data while gentoo numbers were increasing. One of the reasons for this is Adélie penguins rely more on sea ice than gentoos for feeding.

The sea bird program not only involves the study of penguins, but also every other species of bird surrounding Palmer Station, including giant petrels, brown and south polar skuas and kelp gulls. These species were monitored in various ways including mark-recapture, leg band re-sights and nest observation. We even deployed satellite transmitters on southern giant petrels – the data from the first transmitter we analyzed showed that the bird had traveled 1,500 miles in just 10 days!

In addition to bird surveying, we were asked to conduct a marine mammal census by identifying species, behaviors and group size. As a seal keeper, seeing various seal species in the wild was just beyond anything I could have imagined – Antarctica is home to crabeater seals, weddell seals, ross seals, elephant seals, fur seals and the infamous – and dangerous – leopard seals.

The Detroit Zoological Society has worked with the Polar Oceans Research Group for a number of years – its founder, the world-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser, was a consultant on the design of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center. This is the second time a member of our animal care team has been invited to take part in this rare and extraordinary opportunity to conduct scientific research in Antarctica during the austral summer.

– Flo Yates is a zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Jane Begins to Explore her New World

Animal care staff recently noticed two new white teeth peeking out through the gums of infant chimpanzee Jane. Now 6 months old, when the baby yawns, she reveals six pearly whites. As Jane wakes up, laying on her mom Abby’s chest, she stretches out her spindly legs, releases her grip on her mother’s hair and looks around. Everything in her world is something new to explore and we’ve already started to see Jane’s curious and intelligent nature.

Jane took her first steps tentatively. Holding on to Abby with one hand for support, she tried to reach forward to grab onto something sturdy to balance herself. It took the little one about a week to be coordinated and confident enough to move her foot to take a step, but after that she was ready to explore! Climbing was her next big feat. At first, she held onto Abby for extra support but she soon was ready to reach new heights without mom’s help. Each day, Jane would venture a little bit higher and test out her strength and balance by letting go of one of her hands.

The rest of the troop is still enamored with their newest addition. Many individuals can be seen sitting near Abby and grooming her, just to get a closer look at their youngest member. Occasionally, with her stumbling walk, Jane will reach out her hand to them to greet them, a chimpanzee communication she has learned from watching her mom and others. Some of the chimpanzees are gentle with her and will lightly place a hand onto Jane’s back while she sits between the adults or gently, with one finger, touch the top of her head. Abby is popular in the troop now that she is carrying a little one on her chest as all of the other chimpanzees want to spend time around Jane.

While others admire the little girl without touching, her half-sister Zuhura is overjoyed to have a young playmate. It’s clear Zuhura cannot wait until Jane gets older and can follow her around the habitat and play. Still young herself at age 5, Zuhura can be a little rough when she plays with her youngest sister. When Jane seems to have had enough, Abby disciplines her granddaughter (Zuhura) with a quick grunt and shake of her hand, which tells her to stop.

Play is an important part of a young chimpanzee’s life as they learn important skills for when they reach adulthood, such as running, climbing, wrestling and displaying. Play bouts also teach young chimpanzees social skills such as dominance, submission, confidence and reconciliation. So, although sometimes Zuhura can appear to be rough with Jane, don’t worry! Jane is learning new behaviors from this playtime and if you look closely, you might even see both of them laughing just like human children do. For now, Abby is always just an arm’s reach away in case Jane needs support or to get away from her stronger, older sister.

Jane has also started to pick up objects such as sticks, tiny handfuls of bedding, pieces of primate chow and orange peels that Abby discards. Every item she picks up seems to promptly go to her mouth for inspection or to use as a teething toy. Animal care staff use a small plastic spoon used to feed mashed bananas and baby food to Jane each meal. Occasionally, Abby shares small bites of her own produce. Romaine lettuce appears to be Jane’s new favorite, as she typically takes the whole piece from her mother’s mouth and although she’s not yet consuming it, she shreds it and bites it into tiny pieces for Abby to forage for when Jane is through with it. Although Jane is sampling food items, she still nurses and relies on her mother as her primary source of nutrition.

In the coming months, Jane will be more easily visible as she will transition to being carried on Abby’s back and venture a little further away from her mom, but not yet out of reach. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot Jane playing with her sisters, Zuhura and Akira, 7, or see the elder chimpanzees gently grooming her. The newest chimpanzee has brought much excitement to the troop and she continues to grow in size and personality every day.

– Melissa Thueme is a mammal supervisor for the Detroit Zoological Society.

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.