The Heat is On

Summer is in full swing, and with it comes higher temperatures. Detroit Zoological Society staff ensure the animals who live at the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center are comfortable, regardless of what the thermometer says.

In some cases, this means giving animals the choice to either remain in their outdoor habitat or venture inside when temperatures soar. Think about how great you feel when you come into an air-conditioned building after spending time outside! But should they choose to remain outdoors, we ensure their habitats always incorporate multiple areas where the animals can find shade. The amount and location of the shaded areas change with the sun’s movement, and that stimulates the animals to move around in order to thermoregulate, just as they would in the wild. For example, you can often find the lions resting in the alcoves in the wall of their habitat, and built-in caves will serve a similar purpose in the soon-to-open Devereaux Tiger Forest. The pool on the polar bears’ “pack ice” side of the Arctic Ring of Life is even chilled!

For many of the animals, such as the eland, deer, ostrich and flamingos, animal care staff set up sprinklers and misters that can be moved around to create cool areas. Staff also make wallows for the rhinos, who cool down by covering themselves in mud. You may even see some animals enjoying “popsicles”, made by freezing pieces of fruit and vegetables or even fish, depending on the species. Keeping the animals both comfortable and stimulated is part of ensuring great welfare.

These practices are meant to not only keep the animals comfortable, but safe as well. Humans can suffer from serious heat-related issues, and the same is true for other animals. My dog really loves to go for long walks; however, during the summer, we make more of an effort to stay off the pavement and asphalt, and to walk in the shade whenever possible. Dogs don’t sweat to cool off like we do; they cool themselves through their foot pads and by panting, and pavement can heat up to 140 degrees when it is only 80 degrees outside. I also make sure to bring plenty of water with me for both of us!

My dog also enjoys going for car rides, but we have to remember that leaving any animal in a car that isn’t running can be very dangerous. Temperatures inside a parked car can rise very quickly, so leaving our animal companions at home in these instances is safer. It is our responsibility to keep the animals in our care safe, healthy and happy, whether they live at the Zoo or in our homes.

– 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.

Celebrating International Polar Bear Day

Polar bears are iconic animals, known for their incredible ability to survive in one of the harshest environments on Earth. These marine mammals are the most carnivorous member of the bear family, with a diet consisting primarily of seals. They have a thick layer of fat and waterproof fur, providing insulation in the cold Arctic climate in which they live.

Sea ice is imperative for polar bear survival; they spend the majority of their lives on the ice, relying on it to find a mate, build a den and hunt for seals. In the last 30 years, scientists have seen a dramatic shift in ice within the Arctic Ocean. The amount of “old ice” – ice that stays throughout the summer – is significantly smaller than what it was 30 years ago. The seasonal sea ice is forming later in the year – and melting earlier – directly impacting polar bears’ ability to hunt. As a result, many polar bears aren’t able to build up the fat reserves they need for the summer when food sources aren’t plentiful, and they starve to death.

We know the climate is changing. As humans, we are using fossil fuels such as coal and gas to drive cars and use electricity. These fossil fuels release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which builds up and creates a blanket effect around the Earth, trapping in heat that would otherwise escape. This trapped heat is causing global climate change and is impacting many species, including polar bears.

On February 26 and 27, the Detroit Zoo will join others around the world in highlighting the challenges that polar bears are facing in the wild. International Polar Bear Day celebrates these majestic creatures while also encouraging the community to not only better understand the impact we have on the environment, but to join us in taking positive action that will help protect vulnerable species.

Each one of us has the power to make a difference. We can change our daily behaviors and use less energy by seasonally adjusting our thermostats, riding our bikes, carpooling with friends or turning off the lights. We can also scale these actions up to our schools or workplaces by encouraging others to join us in this endeavor. Celebrating International Polar Bear Day is a great reason to start, or to take things to the next level.

Our International Polar Bear Day will take place on February 26 and 27 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The events will include zookeeper talks, educational activities and visits with the Zoo’s polar bear mascot. Talini and Nuka, the two polar bears who reside at the Zoo, will receive their usual treats at scheduled times (11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.) so guests can watch the bears enjoy them. This is not only a great time to visit the Zoo and the more than 2,000 animals living within our 125 acres, but it’s also a chance to learn more about how we can work together to save wildlife and wild places.

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

Notes from the Field: Polar Bears in Alaska

Greetings from zip code 99747 in Kaktovik, Alaska!

Kaktovik lies on the far northeast coast of Alaska above the Arctic Circle and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). It is a whaling community with a long history of its people living in close proximity to polar bears. I traveled to Kaktovik in 2014 and again in 2015. This time I am fortunate to be joined by one of the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) associate mammal curators, Betsie Meister, who has extensive experience with polar bears and oversees the Arctic Ring of Life, an expansive 4-acre habitat at the Detroit Zoo that is home to polar bears, seals and arctic foxes.

We are here to help colleagues with U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and ANWR to study changes in polar bear numbers, as well as polar bear behavior and use of resources in response to the changing climate. As the climate warms, the arctic summer is getting longer and sea ice is diminishing. Polar bears come off the sea ice usually in late August and spend September and a few weeks of October in the area around Kaktovik waiting for the sea ice to form again. Polar bears use the sea ice as their platform for hunting seals, which is the majority of their wild diet. Without access to the ice, the bears are forced to spend more time on land.

The Inupiat community of Kaktovik hunt bowhead whales every fall to store enough food for the winter. After processing the whales on the beach, the whale remains are taken about a mile and half to the edge of town and placed in the “bone pile”. Polar bears come to feast on the remains, which continue to be a strong attractant for weeks. Kaktovik, which is home to approximately 300 people year round, adds a population of polar bears numbering 15-40 and up to 80 in the late summer and fall. As a result, Kaktovik is becoming more and more popular with tourists from all over the world coming to see the polar bears.

The bears primarily stay on the barrier islands just outside of town, but there is a great potential for human-bear conflict, and the DZS is interested in seeing how Kaktovik handles the conflict. Usually, the bears are kept away with all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and trucks, but sometimes more force is necessary. Shotguns loaded with “cracker shells” or bean bags are then used to keep the bears away. An important safety measure that has been established is the Polar Bear Patrol. This patrol drives around Kaktovik every night from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. protecting the community from bears wandering into town. This year, there was more whale meat at the bone pile than last year, so bears seemed to stay near the pile and away from town. Last year, while I was in Kaktovik, an incident occurred when a bear consumed some dog food from underneath the house next to ours and entered another house to feed on seal blubber.

We came to Kaktovik a week earlier than last year hoping to also observe brown bears. Brown bears have also been affected by the warming climate. They are moving farther north and coming into more contact with polar bears, overlapping more in resource use and, in some places, even hybridizing with polar bears. At Kaktovik, both bear species have been observed feeding on the whale remains, and the DZS is interested in better understanding the overlap in resource use between these species. Unfortunately, no brown bears were seen this year during our time in Kaktovik, and locals informed us that only two or three brown bears had been seen this year.

Kaktovik is just one of the communities on Alaska’s North Slope that face unique circumstances with our Earth’s changing climate. The increased interaction with polar bears and brown bears is a fascinating situation and will become increasingly important for the management of both species. With continued monitoring of bears on the North Slope, the safety of both the public and the bears will remain the top priority of the community, and the DZS will assist in this effort.

– Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the director of conservation for the Detroit Zoological Society and Betsie Meister is the associate curator of mammals.

Notes from the Field – Kaktovik, Alaska

Detroit Zoological Society Director of Conservation Paul Buzzard visited Kaktovik, Alaska, studying polar bears in the wild.

The Detroit Zoological Society has supported polar bear research for many years, and now we are becoming more directly involved in polar bear research and conservation. This morning, we saw 15 polar bears on the small barrier island off of Kaktovik, Alaska.

Paul - Polar Bears

The goal is to go out on a small boat to get closer to the polar bears but we must wait and see if conditions will allow for it.

Paul Buzzard - boat and bears

In the afternoon, I joined staff from the United States Geological Survey to visit a local school to discuss polar bear research. I also had a chance to discuss my work in Nepal and China with snow leopards and red pandas with one of the classes.  I learned local Inupiat dances. I also found so many great Detroit connections – one of the Arctic Refuge staff is from Livonia, two of the teachers here are from Detroit, and I met a Detroit Zoological Society Renaissance Circle member on vacation here.  And one more Michigan connection:  There was an Alaska Fish and Wildlife researcher originally from Muskegon; she was stuck in Prudhoe Bay waiting for the weather to clear to census polar bears by helicopter.

At night, we went to the bone pile, which is the remains from the recent bowhead whale harvest, and we saw several bears scavenging. We learned to never walk outside at night because of polar bears in town.  Every night there is a polar bear patrol to scare away bears in town that might be feeding on whale meat scraps or dog feed and pose a potential threat to humans.  I heard two shots right before I went to bead a couple hundred meters from our house and this morning saw some huge tracks from the bear.

– Paul Buzzard