Animal Welfare: If You Build it, They Will Explore

Juvenile Madagascar giant hognose snakes recently moved into new homes in the Detroit Zoo’s Holden Reptile Conservation Center and indicators measured showed this had positive welfare impacts.

Although Madagascar giant hognose snakes can grow to 6 feet in length, the individuals that live at the Detroit Zoo are still rather small, and have been living behind the scenes since they hatched two years ago. They have a distinctive upturned snout, which they use to burrow and search through leaf litter and other ground substrates in search of food and shelter. Several months ago, the reptile department created new, more naturalistic habitats for the snakes, providing them with additional opportunities to display species-typical behaviors.

These larger spaces were outfitted with multiple types of shelter and natural substrates such as sand, mulch and cork bark. Complex spaces with ample options for making choices can contribute to positive welfare and one of our recent residents at the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare and Ethics, Marisa Spain, decided to conduct a study examining the impact that these new habitats had on the snakes. Little attention has been given to the welfare of reptiles, and as such, less information is available about conditions in which they thrive than for mammals and birds. Marisa studied the snakes before and after they moved into the new spaces, spending hours recording their movements. In their new habitats, the Madagascar giant hognose snakes significantly increased their rates of tongue flicking, which is indicative of exploratory behavior. Similar increases have been seen in other reptile species and categorized as positive indicators of welfare. The snakes also increased how much time they spent burrowing, which is a species-typical behavior now better supported by their enhanced environment. The snakes exhibited more active behaviors in general, something we were hoping to see, as activity levels can indicate how engaged an animal is with its environment. The snakes also showed an increase in behavioral diversity, which is also being used as an indicator of positive welfare.

Overall, we were thrilled to see that the move to their new homes was a valuable change for the snakes. Reptiles perform activities for the same reasons other animals do; for example, to seek food, to explore and to find comfortable places to rest. Because of these welfare studies, we have a better understanding of how reptiles living in the care of humans are faring. All individual animals have welfare needs and while it is our responsibility to ensure those needs are met, it is also incredibly rewarding to see the animals thrive.

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

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: Residency Program Advances Mission

The Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare acts as a resource for knowledge about animal welfare, and in many cases, this includes providing training to others in various ways.

One such way is through our residency program. Residencies offer individuals the opportunity to better understand animal welfare and how to apply scientific principles in order to assess it. Residents are recent college graduates who join our team for a period of six months, during which they assist with data collection on various welfare-related research initiatives and conduct their own independent project designed to provide us with more information about how animals are doing. Past residents have examined such concepts as the impact of underwater complexity on North American river otters, how temperature and social relationships affect how Japanese macaques use their habitat, and the effect of varying how food is presented on the behavior of the king brown snake.

We currently have two brand-new residents working with us, and we are so excited to have them join the team. They will be helping to collect data on the penguin welfare project we are currently working on as we prepare for the opening of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center; using video recordings of what the aardvarks are doing at night so we can have a better idea of how they spend their time and what environmental features they might prefer, and focusing on assessing the welfare of one of the species at the Zoo as part of an independent project. The information they gather will help us to figure out if the animals are thriving, and if any changes could result in even better welfare.

We are glad to be able to provide these kinds of educational opportunities to aspiring animal welfare professionals. Not only does this enable us to undertake even more welfare-related projects here at the Detroit Zoo, which helps to expand the existing body of knowledge about animal welfare, but it also promotes the advancement of animal welfare as these residents go on to the next part of their career.

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

Notes from the Field: Amphibians in Peru

Hola mis amigas y amigos!

I am still in Peru, though my colleague, Paul Buzzard, director of conservation for the Detroit Zoological Society, has returned home. This time of year is high water season, which means that everything is a little different, as animals seek out and share the only dry areas that they can find. This includes snakes, which means they tend to be closer to human living spaces. It’s important to us that we educate people about snakes and explain why they are an important part of the ecosystem. We want to impart that snakes are not to be feared, but rather respected.

The high water doesn’t seem to be negatively affecting anything; however, it is still rising at a steady pace, nearing that of the historical levels set in 2012. Amphibians seem content and in mass abundance near islands that we regularly monitor. When I was here in November, I noticed that few amphibians were seen during the day.  This time, in one of the areas that we frequent, we saw many during the day and very few at night. We also noticed very few insects, which is good for us but bad when you are looking for frogs. It’s hard to narrow down what may be the cause, since so many were found during the daytime.

This weekend there will be a partial eclipse, which is the first one I will experience in the last six years of my travels here. I am looking forward to observing any change in behavior or patterns amphibians may show. Stay tuned… buenas noches!

-Marcy Sieggreen

Editor’s note: Marcy Sieggreen was the curator of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society from 2008 until her passing in 2016. The Detroit Zoological Society established the Sieggreen Amphibian Conservation Fund in Marcy’s memory to continue to advance the work she so passionately championed.