Animal Welfare: Hormone Studies in the Endocrinology Lab

The Detroit Zoo’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare (CZAW) undertakes studies to find innovative and non-invasive means to evaluate how animals are faring. There are a variety of ways to do this, including looking at hormone levels, as they can reflect the internal state of an animal. Hormones control most major bodily functions, including complex systems such as emotional response. We are able to study the hormones of animals at the Detroit Zoo in our endocrinology lab; Dr. Grace Fuller, the Detroit Zoological Society’s manager of applied animal welfare science, is responsible for the work that is done here.

Oxytocin is a hormone that has the potential to tell us a lot about how animals are responding to their social environment. While commonly referenced for its role in a mother bonding with an offspring, oxytocin is involved in bonding in many social settings. It has been studied in a variety of species, including humans. One of the great things about this type of biological marker is that we can measure it in materials such as saliva and urine. This means we can obtain samples more easily, without impacting the animals in a potentially negative way, as might be the case if we had to restrain an animal to obtain a blood sample.

We have collected saliva and urine samples from the giraffes living at the Zoo to explore how social interactions might be having an effect on them. Dr. Fuller has validated (a process necessary to prove that we are indeed measuring what we think we are) our ability to detect levels of oxytocin in both types of samples, and is now looking at how levels correlate with different social situations, including changes to group composition and visitor interactions.

We look forward to sharing the results of this important work as we move forward.

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

Animal Welfare: Educational Partnerships that Improve Animal Well-Being

In a number of instances, the work we do to enhance the welfare of the animals at the Detroit Zoo is a result of collaboration and partnerships. One such partnership is with Madonna University. Students enrolled in a class that is part of the humane education curriculum join us each semester to undertake projects that will benefit the animals.

We work with animal care staff to select projects suited to each species and the students are responsible for learning about that species to better understand the impact that their project will have on the animals’ welfare. The students are divided into three groups and each group is assigned a particular project. The groups work with mentors from the Life Sciences division and over the course of several weeks, complete their project. On the last day, all of the students get the chance to see the results of all of the projects in order to gain more appreciation of the various ways in which we can positively impact animals living in the care of humans.

Over the course of the last few years, the Madonna University students have participated in projects benefiting warthogs, amphibians, giraffes, gorillas, reptiles, rhinos and birds living in the Free-Flight Aviary, to name a few. This year, the students will help us to modify habitats for giant anteaters, flamingos and kangaroos and wallabies in the Australian Outback Adventure. This will involve the creation of nesting areas for the flamingos, as well as planting shrubs for the anteaters and kangaroos in order to add more complexity to their environments and create additional areas of shade. These types of modifications are important to ensure that animals encounter novelty and have more opportunities to display species-typical behaviors.

This wonderful partnership is an example of how the Detroit Zoo provides educational and inspirational opportunities for students and is always finding ways to design engaging habitats for the animals.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the Director of Animal Welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

Animal Welfare: Animals After Dark

Stephanie Allard, Ph.D., is the Director of Animal Welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

Have you ever wondered what the animals do at night when the Detroit Zoo is closed? Some animals, like gorillas and lizards, are most active during the day – known as diurnal – others, like aardvarks and beavers, are most active at night – known as nocturnal – and some have other activity patterns.Kaatie the aardvark - Patti Truesdell

It is important for us to understand the activity patterns of the different animals that live at the Zoo because we have a responsibility to meet their needs all of the time – not just when the Zoo is open to our visitors during normal business hours. For some species, there is already a lot of information available about when they are active and when they spend more time resting. This can help us plan how to best provide them with the opportunities they need to thrive. For others, it can be helpful to monitor their behavior so that we can make informed decisions about each individual animal’s care and welfare.

Jabari the giraffeGiraffes are a good example of this, as it is a species that sleeps for short durations several times a day. In the wild, giraffes need to be constantly on alert for predators. Since this is not the case in a Zoo setting, the sleep and activity patterns of giraffes vary, therefore we wanted to determine what they were for the giraffes here. We spent time monitoring the behavior of the 7-year-old adult male giraffe, Jabari, and the 6-year-old female giraffe, Kivuli, during the night and found that they do spend periods of time resting and ruminating. However, they do have activity peaks as well. Having this kind of information presents us with the chance to develop ways to provide them with things like additional foraging and feeding opportunities throughout the night, which we have done.

It is so important that we always seek additional knowledge to help us ensure that the needs of all the animals who call the Zoo home are met, even when we are not there to see it.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard