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.

Veterinary Care: The Detroit Zoo in Winter

The days have grown shorter and the temperatures colder over the last few weeks. During these chilly months of the year, I am often asked the question, “Does the zoo close during the winter?” The answer is “No!”, but things do change for both the people and the animals during the winter. The Detroit Zoo is open to visitors every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, and all of the animals at the Zoo remain here year-round and need daily care. We have at least one veterinarian and one veterinary technician at the Zoo every day, including holidays. In fact, the winter remains a very busy time for the veterinary staff.

Many of the animals are able to enjoy the cooler temperatures of winter. Some animals that experience much warmer temperatures in the wild are able to grow heavier hair coats and acclimate to a Michigan winter. But even for these, enjoying time outside is always a choice – we keep the doors open so the animals can come inside whenever they choose. We also modify diets during the winter months. Some animals need more calories to keep themselves warm, and hoofstock and other herbivorous animals need access to more hay and browse to replace the pasture and plants they enjoy during the summer. For extra fun, we bring the snow indoors for some of the animals to enjoy. The chimpanzees especially love to play in snow mounds that we bring indoors.

During the winter, there are often fewer visitors in the Zoo, and this has some advantages. Moving a 275-pound tiger to the hospital for radiographs and an examination is a challenging task at any time of the year. We use a large Sprinter van to transport our patients, and a second van to transport the people needed to lift and move them into the hospital. When possible, we always prefer to move large patients around the Zoo on days when we have fewer guests. There are also patients that prefer cooler temperatures. Over the last two years, we have been transporting penguins one at a time to the hospital for examinations under anesthesia. So far, we’ve examined more than 50 penguins! The habitat at the Polk Penguin Conservation Center is kept at a brisk 40 degrees Fahrenheit, so the winter months are a perfect time of year to move penguins to the hospital and keep them comfortable during the process.

Winter is a great time to visit the Zoo. The Polk Penguin Conservation Center offers a new experience every time I visit, and some days you can enjoy moments of near solitude with the penguins. The red pandas and Japanese macaques are especially active at this time of year, and a fresh snowfall transforms the zoo into a truly beautiful place.

You can also experience the magic of winter during our evening Wild Lights event, featuring 5 million lights and activities for guests of all ages. We all have more than four months of winter to enjoy/endure. I find the best way to get through the winter is to get outside and enjoy it! So, I’ve rummaged through my office closet for my winter hat and gloves, started wearing my long underwear, and I am embracing the winter season! Hope to see you at the Zoo!

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the Director of Animal Health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.