Texas Rescue: 10 Years Later

Maroo, a male red-necked wallaby, passed away on November 11, 2019. Although this may seem like a sad way to begin a blog entry, this is a celebration of Maroo’s life for the almost 10 years he lived at the Detroit Zoo. He was part of the wallaby mob living in the Australian Outback Adventure, and seemed to enjoy exploring this expansive space and sharing his time with others of his species. He was cared for by dedicated zookeepers and observed by attentive volunteers as well as visitors. Maroo will be missed. His story could have had a much different trajectory, had it not been for the intervention of the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS).

TR Maroo

In December of 2009, six DZS animal curators and supervisors travelled to Texas to provide expert care for more than 27,000 animals seized by authorities in the largest exotic animal rescue in the history of the United States. We were contacted after an investigation revealed inhumane treatment of these animals – including spiders, reptiles, amphibians and numerous exotic mammal species – by an exotic animal dealer who was selling them. Our staff members spent almost two months at a temporary care facility in Dallas, helping to triage and care for these animals who had been kept in dismal conditions. Not only did this include basic care, such as proper food, water and medical treatment, but it was also the first time any of these animals were treated with the respect they deserve. Unfortunately, many did not survive due to the illnesses and injuries they sustained during the time they spent as part of the exotic animal trade.

TX-Beth Johnson and Sloths

Hundreds of these animals – 961 to be exact – about two-thirds of which were amphibians, came to the Detroit Zoo to spend the rest of their lives in comfort and receive the care each one deserved. Although many of these animals have passed due to old age over the past decade, some are still at the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center. Two ring-tailed lemurs were among the animals rescued, and the female was actually pregnant at the time. She gave birth to healthy twins, and all four still live in the group you can observe at the Zoo. Four Linne’s sloths were cared for by our staff and have gone on to live good lives at other zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Of the four matamata turtles who arrived here, one can still be seen at the Holden Reptile Conservation Center. You can also visit two tiger salamanders at the Belle Isle Nature Center. In total, there are about three dozen of the rescued animals still living in our care. Five wallabies originally joined the mob at the Detroit Zoo as part of this important rescue effort, and Maroo was the last of this group.

TX-black spiny toads

Maroo’s story is a great example of the impact the DZS has on the lives of individual animals. The exotic animal trade is not only having drastic impacts on populations of wild animals, it is also an industry that creates and promotes severe animal welfare issues for individual animals. Our mission is Celebrating and Saving Wildlife, and our efforts to assist with rescues and provide sanctuary for animals are a critical part of this mission. The next time you visit the Detroit Zoo, look for signs identifying rescued animals and learn more about their stories.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is deputy chief life sciences officer for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics.

Habitat Expansions Benefit Animal Welfare

You may have noticed some changes at the Detroit Zoo recently, with construction occurring at many animal habitats. We recently unveiled the expansion of the Edward Mardigian Sr. River Otter Habitat, which tripled the outdoor space available to the North American river otters, complete with a flowing stream and a sandy beach. We’ve also been working on improving the giraffe habitat by adding much needed additional outdoor space and doubling the size of the indoor area. This past spring, Homer the Hoffman’s two-toed sloth moved to newly remodeled digs near the rhinos, and we’re currently renovating his former home in the National Amphibian Conservation Center to provide a more spacious habitat for the Japanese giant salamanders.

Sometimes, as was the case with the Polk Penguin Conservation Center and the Cotton Family Wolf Wilderness, we have the ability to design and build new habitats from the ground up. In other instances, we are able to take habitats that already contain many features that benefit the animals and expand upon them to provide even more space and complexity. In both situations, we begin with the knowledge we have about individual animals and how they interact with their environments.

For example, we know that otters are semi-aquatic. Staff at the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare have observed the animals engaged in a variety of water-related behaviors. When it came time to design the expansion of their habitat, it was very important that we incorporate features that would enable them to enjoy the water even more. It’s easy to see how much time they spend in the new stream, now making the most of both deep and shallow areas of water. And the island portion of the habitat enhances their opportunities to interact with various substrates and amplifies the overall complexity of their space.

As we move forward, we will continue to improve the habitats we provide for the animals that call the Detroit Zoo home, ensuring that they are stimulating and naturalistic. We are always a work in progress, keeping the welfare of the animals as our top priority. Up next are the tigers and several species of reptiles in the Holden Reptile Conservation Center. As we continue to learn about and understand the needs of the animals in our care – both the individuals and the species – we can make better choices that result in great spaces for them to live in.

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