Veterinary Care: Rattlesnakes, Kitty Litter and Conservation

Snakes. They seem to evoke either a sense of fascination or a sense of fear – not much in between.

Since biblical times, snakes have often been portrayed as representations of evil, which certainly hasn’t helped their image. However, I have found that it just takes getting to know and understanding these beautiful creatures – their biology and their place in the ecosystem – to gain the respect and admiration that they disserve. I am a huge fan. So, when recently given the opportunity to participate in conservation efforts of an endangered species of rattlesnake – in its natural wild habitat and in our own backyard – I was more than excited!

The Eastern massasauga rattlesnake is a shy and beautiful venomous rattlesnake. It is small by most rattlesnake standards – usually only averaging about 2-3 feet long as an adult, with an intricate light and dark brown pattern down its back. It is the only rattlesnake native to Michigan. While it once ranged widely in the wetlands of the upper Midwest and Great Lakes region, extending north to parts of southern Ontario, because of human encroachment (draining of wetlands for roads, farmland and development), and human persecution (killing out of fear, poaching for private collections) much of the massasauga’s habitat has been lost or become fragmented, and the population is in decline. There is also an emerging disease concern, snake fungal disease, which appears to be affecting wild populations of snakes – including the Eastern massasauga – in Illinois, Ohio, and a number of other states. They are now considered threatened throughout most of their range, and in 2016 were listed as threatened in Michigan under the Endangered Species Act, providing some legal protection for the species.

The good news is that there are still pockets of small but thriving populations in parts of Michigan. There is also a passionate collaborative network of conservation-minded organizations partnering together to actively study these populations. Their efforts in cooperative population management, field research and conservation, and public education help protect and manage massasauguas both in captivity and in the wild.

 

The Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ (AZA) Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Species Survival Plan (SSP) was formed in 2009. The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is an active supporter and participant in this program, and our curator of reptiles, Jeff Jundt, is currently the SSP coordinator. This accredited zoo-based SSP network has a dual mission: to maintain genetic diversity of the massasauga through cooperative breeding programs within accredited zoos and aquariums, and to promote its conservation in the wild.  With this mission in mind, the SSP found a perfect conservation partner in the Edward Lowe Foundation.

Edward Lowe invented Kitty Litter, the country’s first packaged cat litter. He went on to develop Tidy Cat and other brands of kitty litter and was a successful entrepreneur. He and his wife Darlene later established the Edward Lowe Foundation, located in southwestern Michigan, in the heart of some of Michigan’s best massasauga habitats.

The foundation also has dual missions: to promote entrepreneurship through training and support programs, and to promote local land stewardship. When the foundation’s interest in knowing more about massasaugas and how they and other species of plants and animals were being impacted by land management practices emerged, a perfect conservation partnership was formed. The Edward Lowe Foundation property not only has beautiful meeting facilities and a willingness to host the massasauga SSP participants and other researchers and biologists interested in local wildlife and plant conservation, it sits in the heart of native wetland habitat where a strong population of these rattlesnakes are still found. The SSP participants have been meeting each May at the Edward Lowe Foundation facilities since 2009 and have been part of a collaborative long-term population study.

I was invited to one such meeting this spring. With invitees from more than 20 participating zoos, it made for a large but enthusiastic group. The amount of herpetological experience and knowledge present was quite impressive! These folks LOVE what they do, and they are passionate about massasaugas and the work they are doing to contribute to their conservation. I can also tell you that it is hard work.

My experience in snake field conservation stems mostly from my participation in Virgin Island, Mona Island and Cuban boa field conservation programs. The habitats of these beautiful non-venomous snakes are generally hot, rocky, arid, coastal and depression forest terrains found on small islands in the Caribbean, and most fieldwork studying them is done at night when these animals are more active. Not so with the massasauga.

In the spring, these rattlesnakes are emerging from their overwintering hibernation sites – mostly crawfish holes along and within wetland areas interspersed with tall cattails and reeds. These habitats are laden with muddy sink holes, tall reeds, poison sumac and ticks. It can be 80 degrees and sweltering in the morning, and then pouring rain and 50 degrees in the afternoon. None of these are deterrents for the SSP meeting attendees.

Interspersed daily between the SSP business meetings to review and make recommendations regarding captive population management and breeding, we attendees were eager to get out into the field to study the wild population. Those of us participating were often in the field for four to eight hours of the day in search of rattlesnakes.

Dressed in field gear covering us from head to toe to protect against the poison sumac, mosquitoes and ticks, and wearing heavy rubber wading boots, we carried special snake restraint tongs, cloth bags and buckets for safe capture of any venomous snakes we encountered. (All participants have been trained in safe approach, handling, and restraint of venomous snakes.) With this cumbersome preparation, we happily ventured into the designated wetland habitats in search of the elusive massasauga!

Admittedly, my skills in the field were limited. I am happy to say that I only lost one of my boots to the muddy abyss and came away without a sumac rash, but did not have any luck finding massasaugas on my own. I was of most use in the lab, where I could put my veterinary skills to work on any snakes delivered so that important biological data could be collected, recorded and processed. I teamed up with two long-standing massasauga biologists and researchers, Linda Faust and Eric Hileman, along with SSP veterinarian Randy Junge, all of whom led this part of the project and kept everything organized and running smoothly.

Each snake brought in was given a physical exam, weighed, measured, and had a small amount of blood collected for testing and DNA studies. They were also photographed (coloration patterns on their skin are unique identifiers) and tags were placed if they were of sufficient size. Females were given ultrasounds to record their stage of follicle development. All of this information was carefully recorded and is being compiled for current and future use for population and land management studies.  The snakes were released back to the location they were found usually within one or two hours. I am happy to report that of the 55 snakes that were found this year, all appeared healthy with no evidence of emerging snake fungal disease. What a meeting!

I have been a zoo veterinarian for more than 25 years, and have much experience working with massasaugas and other venomous and non-venomous snakes in the zoo setting. I hope I have kindled some passion for snakes in some of those who may read this.

I have been given many wonderful opportunities while working with the Detroit Zoological Society. I must say, it never gets old working with people who are passionate about what they do, and being able to participate in projects that make a difference, no matter how small your role may be.

– Wynona Shellabarger DVM, is a Detroit Zoological Society veterinarian who works at the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

Animal Welfare: Educational Partnerships that Improve Animal Well-Being

In a number of instances, the work we do to enhance the welfare of the animals at the Detroit Zoo is a result of collaboration and partnerships. One such partnership is with Madonna University. Students enrolled in a class that is part of the humane education curriculum join us each semester to undertake projects that will benefit the animals.

We work with animal care staff to select projects suited to each species and the students are responsible for learning about that species to better understand the impact that their project will have on the animals’ welfare. The students are divided into three groups and each group is assigned a particular project. The groups work with mentors from the Life Sciences division and over the course of several weeks, complete their project. On the last day, all of the students get the chance to see the results of all of the projects in order to gain more appreciation of the various ways in which we can positively impact animals living in the care of humans.

Over the course of the last few years, the Madonna University students have participated in projects benefiting warthogs, amphibians, giraffes, gorillas, reptiles, rhinos and birds living in the Free-Flight Aviary, to name a few. This year, the students will help us to modify habitats for giant anteaters, flamingos and kangaroos and wallabies in the Australian Outback Adventure. This will involve the creation of nesting areas for the flamingos, as well as planting shrubs for the anteaters and kangaroos in order to add more complexity to their environments and create additional areas of shade. These types of modifications are important to ensure that animals encounter novelty and have more opportunities to display species-typical behaviors.

This wonderful partnership is an example of how the Detroit Zoo provides educational and inspirational opportunities for students and is always finding ways to design engaging habitats for the animals.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the Director of Animal Welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

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.

Animal Welfare: Through the Looking Glass

Stephanie Allard, Ph.D., is the Director of Animal Welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

Glass enclosures like those in the Holden Reptile Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo are designed to provide visitors with less obstructed views of the animals and bring them even closer. These clear barriers can also easily lend themselves to direct contact by both the visitors and the animals – visitors can press their hands and faces right up to the glass, and even knock or bang on the glass. As it appears to be a common occurrence in zoos and aquariums, it’s important to us that we understand what effect, if any, that this visitor behavior has on the animals.King Cobra - Jeff Jundt

While this topic has not been well researched thus far, the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare at the Detroit Zoo is in the midst of a study designed to determine if there is an impact on the welfare of reptiles when visitors knock on the glass of their enclosures.

We first wanted to determine if there were specific enclosures or species that were being targeted by visitors, and we learned that this was not the case. Next, we want to determine if there is a behavioral response by the animals to the visitors interacting with the glass. We recorded video footage of the individuals before and after visitors interacted with the glass of the enclosure. We are currently comparing that behavioral data to other data collected at times during which there were no visitor interactions.

Tortoise - Roy LewisBased on what is known about reptiles, we may find in this study less behavioral evidence of their reactions to their environment. But an important thing to keep in mind is that just because we can’t see a reaction, it doesn’t mean the individual animal isn’t affected.

Therefore, the final phase of this study will attempt to look for any changes in hormone levels – specifically corticosterone, which is the reptile and avian equivalent to cortisol in humans – during times with little to no visitor interactions and those with more. This part will be a bit trickier, as the means by which we collect hormone information non-invasively in mammals – by measuring levels in feces or saliva, for example – is not as easily done with reptiles. We are excited by the challenge however, as the welfare of every animal is important, including the ones that people might not relate to as easily.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard