Whenever we design and construct a new animal habitat, our focus is on ensuring it is expansive, naturalistic and meets the animals’ specific needs. These spaces should provide the animals with opportunities to do the things that are important to them – be it climbing trees, swimming, wallowing in the mud, and interacting with social partners (or avoiding social partners if that’s what they want at any given time).
Attendees of the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) annual fundraising gala, Sunset at the Zoo, on Friday, June 7, will have the opportunity to observe two newly renovated and expanded spaces in the Detroit Zoo’s Asian Forest that succeed in doing just that.
A few months ago, red pandas Ash, Ravi and Ta-shi moved into the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest. DZS staff immediately began making observations to determine the effect of the new space on the well-being of the animals. We call this a “post-occupancy evaluation” – in this case, it consisted of behavioral observations on each individual as they explored their home. We spent eight weeks monitoring where they chose to spend their time and how their behavior varied based on a number of different factors, including noise levels and if guests were present in a new way the habitat provides. A 70-foot long canopy walkway extends through the trees of the space, allowing visitors to have a red panda’s-eye view.
Through these observations, we learned exactly what we hoped for – the red pandas demonstrated diverse “activity budgets”, which means they engaged in different behaviors throughout the day. We were really pleased to see that Ash and Ravi explored and scent-marked their space, both signs that it is stimulating for them. Ta-shi spent a bit more time inactive than the others, which is not surprising given that she is older.
The red pandas made use of most of their space, but did have some preferences, including spending time high up in the trees. This is a natural tendency for the species, and we were glad to see them use the elevated features. Having visitors present on the bridge did not seem to change their preferred resting locations, although Ash occasionally stayed inside the holding building when the habitat first opened. In order to allow the red pandas to acclimate to their new surroundings, we provided them with the choice to go inside their respective buildings. Enabling animals to choose where to spend their time is an important factor in ensuring positive welfare. This ability to retreat was also helpful when noise levels rose, primarily due to the construction happening at the Devereaux Tiger Forest close by. We were thrilled to see that Ash, Ravi and Ta-shi found their home to be a great place to live, letting us know that all of the planning that went into this habitat expansion was successful.
Our next post-occupancy evaluation will focus on the Devereaux Tiger Forest. The tiger forest will significantly increase the amount of space for tigers. Naturalistic features, including caves, trees, elevated areas, a waterfall and pool, have been incorporated in order to promote species-appropriate behaviors such as exploration and swimming. We look forward to assessing how the new habitat impacts the well-being of the tigers when the habitat opens this summer.
This year’s Sunset at the Zoo celebrates the Asian Forest, which includes both the tigers’ and red pandas’ new digs. On the evening of Friday, June 7, guests will have the opportunity to explore the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest and take a sneak peek at the new Devereaux Tiger Forest. Just as the red panda habitat includes an exciting new experience for guests with the canopy walkway, the tiger habitat has a thrilling element of its own. In addition to expansive acrylic viewing windows, an SUV will be positioned half in the habitat and half out, allowing visitors to sit in the driver’s seat – and a tiger might just lounge on the hood.
Proceeds for Sunset at the Zoo benefit the Detroit Zoological Society’s mission of Celebrating and Saving Wildlife.
– 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.