Animal Welfare: A Red Panda’s-Eye View

There are many questions I’d like to ask animals. In the case of the red pandas who live at the Detroit Zoo, one question would have to do with their newly expanded and renovated digs. Ash, Ravi and Ta-shi have moved into the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest, where so much work has been done to ensure they will enjoy this wonderful habitat.

It would be nice if we could channel our internal Dr. Doolittle and simply ask them what they think, but what would be the fun in that? Since we don’t share a common language with red pandas, our challenge is to figure out what they are telling us using means other than traditional human communication. To determine the impact of the Red Panda Forest on the well-being of the three red pandas, Detroit Zoological Society staff are conducting behavioral observations on each one of them as they explore their home.

Red pandas are endangered and native to Asia’s high-altitude temperate forests. With 50 percent of their natural range in the eastern Himalayas, they are well-suited to the cold temperatures and snow we experience in Michigan. Red pandas use their long, bushy tails for both balance (as they traverse tree canopies) and protection from the elements. Although they are a carnivore species, they are actually leaf-eaters, with bamboo comprising the primary component of their diet in the wild. They are also crepuscular, meaning they are most active early in the morning and later in the day, with their natural breeding season during the late winter months.

Detroit Zoological Society staff have been caring for red pandas for several decades. This experience proved invaluable when designing the new features in their habitat. The Red Panda Forest incorporates tall, natural trees to create a complex arboreal pathway, as well as a flowing stream and misting areas. One of the really cool aspects of the habitat is the suspension bridge that brings us eye-level with the pandas when they are in the tree canopy. Not only does this offer us a great view of the pandas, but it will also allow us to gain a better understanding of what they are experiencing. What does the world look and sound like from that height? Part of promoting good welfare for an animal is to be sensitive to their perception of the word around them.

We look forward to uncovering how the three red pandas use their new habitat, including how each one differs in their behavior and preferences. Knowing this enables us to create opportunities for each of them to thrive. We hope you check out the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest during your next visit to the Detroit Zoo and see this incredible new space for yourself.

– 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.

Education: What is a Species Survival Plan?

Red pandas Ta-Shi and Shifu have produced several adorable cubs at the Detroit Zoo, most recently little Tofu. North American river otters Whisker and Lucius have sired a couple pups and reticulated giraffes Kivuli and Jabari are well known for their now 13-foot-tall calf Mpenzi. Pairings like these and the offspring that follows are not by chance; each is carefully planned out and managed through what is known as a Species Survival Plan (SSP).

The 230 accredited zoological institutions that comprise the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) work together through these cooperative management programs to ensure genetically healthy, diverse and self-sustaining populations of threatened and endangered species. More than 450 species are apart of an SSP throughout zoological institutions in North America, overseen through a comprehensive population management system, which includes a Studbook and a Breeding and Transfer Plan. Each of these identifies population management goals and makes recommendations to ensure the sustainability of a healthy, genetically diverse and demographically varied animal population.

The Detroit Zoo has individuals from 98 of these species under its care, including 38 birds, 30 mammals, 24 reptiles, four amphibians, one fish and one invertebrate. Many of these species are animals that require immediate attention to save the remaining wild populations. Our cooperative breeding efforts have proven extremely successful – for example, the Detroit Zoo has been credited with restoring the population of a Tahitian land snail called partula nodosa, once extinct in the wild. Additionally, in May of last year, 22,571 Puerto Rican crested toad tadpoles bred at the Detroit Zoo were released into the wild of Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico. In 2014, a record 3,945 Wyoming toad tadpoles bred at the Detroit Zoo were released into the wild. This long-running effort was previously recognized as No. 1 on the AZA’s list of the Top 10 wildlife conservation success stories.

AZA institutions and partners work together to carefully monitor SSP species both in the wild and in zoo populations. Organizations will often move SSP animals to other zoos and aquariums so they can mate with individuals to ensure a long-term healthy future for the species. Breeding recommendations are made with consideration given to each animal’s social and biological needs as well as transfer feasibility.

Be sure to look for the SSP logo on animal signage as you explore the Detroit Zoo on your next visit. Each time you see the logo, you’ll know that there are countless individuals working at zoos, aquariums and in the field around the world to do everything we can to save and rebuild the remaining populations of these species.

Veterinary Care: Dental Health in Exotic Animals

Dentistry is a very important component of veterinary care for the animals at the Detroit Zoo. Many of the animals here live longer than their wild counterparts, so ensuring that they have healthy teeth throughout their lifetime is a priority.

Dental issues can have a big impact on comfort and the overall well-being of an animal. We sometimes find that if an animal is showing a decrease in appetite or is experiencing weight loss or other problems, they ultimately have underlying dental problems. Whenever we do an exam on an animal, we are sure to carefully examine the teeth for problems and to scale and polish them to remove tartar or plaque. If we see problems or areas of concern, we take skull or dental radiographs to look for problems under the gum line, just like you experience during your routine dental visits.

Recently, one of our zookeepers noticed that a red panda was not opening his mouth fully when taking in food items such as grapes. We examined him under anesthesia three times over a short period, and despite anticipating a dental issue, we were unable to find any areas of concern during examination and radiographs. We collected diagnostic samples and treated him with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory and pain medications. Each time, the problem improved and then recurred. When the red panda started having problems most recently, we decided to transport him to a nearby veterinary specialty practice for a CT scan. This advanced imaging technique took only about 20 minutes, and was able to clearly delineate an area of infection underneath one of his upper molars. Usually dental issues can be pinpointed with regular radiographs, but in this case diagnosis proved extra challenging.

We made arrangements to transport the red panda to a board certified veterinary dentist, Dr. Ben Colmery at Dixboro Veterinary Dental and Medical Center in Ann Arbor. Dr. Colmery was able to remove the problem tooth, which allowed the infection to drain clear of the area. Within days, the red panda was opening his mouth wide to eat all of his food items and seemed much more comfortable.

Every member of the Zoo’s veterinary staff helped during one or more of the red panda’s examinations and treatment. This case demonstrates how teamwork, persistence, and assistance from outside experts can lead to a great outcome for our treasured animal patients. I’m thankful for the assistance that we receive from our veterinary colleagues, and proud of the great work that we do in the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex!

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the chief veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.