Studying Animal Responses to the Pandemic Zoo Closure—One Year Later

This photo of red panda Scarlet was taken by Jennifer Harte.

The early days of the Covid-19 pandemic were an unprecedented time at the Detroit Zoo. When the Zoo closed as part of a statewide lockdown in March 2020, the absence of visitors was palpable. Walking the grounds in the budding spring weather, it was eerily quiet, the usual sounds of school groups and families replaced by birdsong and the hum of traffic outside the Zoo. The Zoo is usually open to guests 362 days of the year, and we realized that this sudden quietus was an opportunity. We had a chance to understand how animals experienced life at the Zoo in the absence of visitors—not just for a night or a holiday but, potentially, for months.

Being around human visitors is a defining feature of life for animals in zoos and aquariums. For this reason, visitor effects are an important topic in the study of animal welfare, which is the science investigating the physical, behavioral, and mental lives of animals to understand how they are faring overall. Animal welfare scientists try to understand life from the animals’ perspective. In this case, we wondered, what did the animals think when the crowds suddenly disappeared? Some people might assume that animals enjoy people watching, while others might suspect that visitors can be an annoyance. The scientific literature on visitor effects supports both ideas. Studies show that visitors can have a positive, neutral, or sometimes negative effect on animals living in zoos and aquariums. How would the residents of the Detroit Zoo respond?

Researchers at the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE) asked this question by collecting data on the behavior, use of space, and (in some cases) hormone levels of animals across the Zoo. For most projects, we collected data for about a month while the Zoo was closed and for another month after reopening. We monitored red pandas, southern white rhinoceroses, trumpeter swans, red kangaroos, red-necked wallabies, Catalina Island rattlesnakes, European glass lizards, beaded lizards, Arrau turtles, dwarf caimans, and a spiny-tailed iguana. We quickly realized that one challenge of this research was that the animals were very attentive to the sudden change in visitor patterns. They were alert to our activities, so we put our binoculars to good use, conducting our observations from a distance and hoping not to influence the behaviors we were recording.

The results of our research were as diverse as the creatures we studied. The iguana used more of his habitat when the Zoo was open, and both rattlesnakes were more active when the Zoo was open as well. However, the glass lizards spent more time hiding after the Zoo reopened. They were also more likely to be not visible when visitors were tapping on the glass of their enclosures, demonstrating an important point. Actions taken to get a response from animals might seem innocent, but imagine if someone was pounding on the door to your house all day—you might hide too. It shows that we all have a collective responsibility for the welfare of animals at the Zoo.

Although we saw differences in behavior with the Zoo open and closed, it was often unclear whether those changes represented a difference in overall welfare. The red kangaroos were an interesting example. We chose to study them because their walk-through habitat can potentially put guests in proximity to them. We found that in response to visitor presence, the kangaroos changed their schedule so they utilized the area around the visitor path more frequently in the morning, before visitors reached their habitat. However, there were no signs that this change impacted their overall well-being. Of course, by the time the Zoo reopened, we were transitioning from spring to summer, so we cannot rule out the possibility that warmer temperatures played a role in these trends. This example shows the complexity of studying human-animal relationships in the Zoo, as the effects of visitors can be difficult to isolate from other seasonal or environmental changes. A year later, we are still combing through the piles of data we collected during the statewide lockdown. Our results have shown many behavioral differences when the Zoo was closed versus open, but most of the effects were quite subtle. It is possible that the return of visitors at lower than normal capacities might have affected the results. The Zoo’s welfare-focused habitat designs, which give animals choices about whether or not to be seen and where to spend their time, may also make animals feel comfortable in their living spaces whether or not visitors are present. Using science, we can continue to investigate these important questions as part of a comprehensive approach to ensuring animals at the Detroit Zoo thrive.

– Dr. Grace Fuller is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society.

A Blossoming Friendship: Ta-Shi Teaches Keti Manners

Is there anything sweeter than making a new friend? Keti and 14-year-old Ta-Shi have become quite the dynamic duo in recent weeks.

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Keti, who is the offspring of 4-year-old mother, Ash, and 3-year-old father, Ravi, was hand-reared after birth by Detroit Zoological staff. Ash was a young first-time mother and a bit unsure of how to properly care for her newborn. It’s not unusual for this to occur; zoo babies do occasionally have to be cared for by staff for various reasons.

After four months of close observation in the DZS nursery, Keti was encouraged to play and learn on her own in a grassy habitat adjacent to the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest.

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Keti quickly became confident in her abilities — and then it was time for another first: a grand introduction.

Recently, Keti was introduced to Ta-Shi in the grassy habitat. Ta, who has reared cubs multiple times, appeared curious and switched on her maternal instincts during her first meeting with the now 6-month-old. Keti seemed incredibly eager to be around another red panda and quickly took to Ta.

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A good companion and mentor, Ta is teaching Keti her manners — and, in a way, helping her potty train. In the wild, red pandas go to the bathroom in a specific area, similar to how a cat uses a litter box. Ta has now shown Keti where the “bathroom” is located.

The pair appear to be getting along well and last week, they were even caught snuggling.

Keti and Ta will eventually be moved to the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest to join neighbors, Ash and Ravi.

Ash and Ravi are approaching breeding season, so Keti will remain separated from them as this is the normal period when red panda babies leave their mothers in the wild.

In other words, Keti will get to spend even more quality time with her new faithful friend.

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-Alexandra Bahou is communications manager for the Detroit Zoological Society

Meet Keti, An Adorable Baby Red Panda

Visitors to the Detroit Zoo are always excited when they are able to see baby animals.  Babies are adorable, and are often playful and fun to watch.  Chimpanzee Jane is no exception – she is now 15 months old and can be seen climbing in the trees in her habitat and encouraging the older chimps to play with her. Hana, a female Japanese macaque, is only 5 months old, but is already moving away from her mother and exploring the rocks and branches of her habitat.

It’s not always possible for zoo babies to be cared for by their mothers for various reasons, and occasionally animal care staff have to step in and assist.  When this happens, babies are often cared for in the animal hospital nursery, where they can be given the intensive care they need to grow and thrive.  In the nursery, veterinary and zookeeper staff caregivers can provide round-the-clock feeding and attention.

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Over the years, we have had the pleasure of caring for a number of adorable babies, but in my opinion our current nursery resident – a female red panda cub – is arguably the most adorable animal in Detroit Zoo history.  She was born July 6, and weighed 112 grams (around 4 ounces), a good weight for a red panda cub.  While the cub’s mother Ash was pregnant, she allowed us to ultrasound her abdomen while she happily ate treats, so we knew she was pregnant with a single cub that was growing well.  Ash delivered the baby with no problems, and showed the newborn lots of attention, but this was her first pregnancy, and she didn’t have all of the skills needed to raise the cub.  Red panda cubs have been hand-reared at several zoos, including the Detroit Zoo, and we had prepared in advance to care for the panda cub, just in case.  A hand-rearing manual that compiles collective experiences of zoo professionals was used to determine the formula and feeding schedule and help to develop a care plan.

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The cub was placed in an incubator that provided a warm, humidified environment, and was given round-the-clock care.  Her formula was offered in a small bottle with a nipple used for premature human babies, and during her first days she was given only 3-4 milliliters at a time. At each feed, we used a warm, moistened cotton ball to stimulate her to urinate and defecate.  We fed her eight times each day, and by one week she had gained 19 grams.  By two weeks, she only needed to be fed seven times a day and had nearly doubled her birth weight.  When she was a few weeks old, we were concerned that she might have a respiratory infection, but since then she has remained healthy and has continued to grow and become more curious about her environment.  At 5 weeks old, we warmed up the nursery room and moved her to a covered playpen so she could have room to move and play with toys.  A month later she was ready to be moved to an even larger area, and to be given access to climbing structures, bamboo to chew and manipulate, and bowls of formula mixed with adult diet.  She was given the name Keti, meaning “girl” in Nepali, and her caretakers spent time with her each day, encouraging her to climb and explore.

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Keti is now more than half the size of an adult red panda, and spends time outside in an area designed to encourage her to play and practice her climbing skills.  She is also becoming acclimated to the colder temperatures.  Eventually she will be moved to a habitat where visitors can watch her continue to grow and get experience climbing and traveling at greater heights.  When proficient, she will be ready to join Ash, dad Ravi and grandma Ta-Shi in the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest.

 

– 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: 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.