Connecting With Wildlife in an Artful Way

Authored by Ashley Ciricola, curator of fine and performing arts for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS).

The Detroit Zoo is home to many mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates. But did you know the Zoo is also home to a variety of paintings, sculptures, photographs and other pieces of art?

November 9 happens to be National Go to an Art Museum Day, and we want to shine a deserving light on the the Detroit Zoological Society’s permanent art collection. Read on to learn more about these pieces and see why visitors of all ages should add an art tour to their next Zoo trip. 

Since 1995, the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery at the Detroit Zoo has been a designated space to display the permanent art collection, supporting the DZS’ mission by creating meaningful connections between people, animals and the natural world. The cultural and artistic diversity of our permanent art collection encourages guests to consider and compare the varied relationships between humans and animals across different cultures and times. 

The universal language of art is a pathway to start or continue discussions about conservation and sustainability topics within our community, and whether you are interested in local artists or ancient artifacts, the permanent art collection at the Detroit Zoo has a little something for everyone. Here are a few of the collections that are currently on display: 

But the beauty isn’t just limited to the indoors; in fact, the collection continues as you venture throughout the Zoo grounds. There are many unique pieces to see, from vibrant Pewabic tile mosaics to bronze animal statues that are at hug level for our smallest art aficionados to enjoy.  

Wherever you are in the Zoo, there is likely a meaningful piece of art that is nearby and waiting for you to explore! Plan your next trip to the Detroit Zoo and see it all for yourself – visit www.detroitzoo.org today to purchase your tickets.

Detroit Zoo Welcomes Nearly 100 Bird Species During Spring Migration

Throughout spring migration, the Detroit Zoo’s 125 acres provided refuge to many weary travelers. Now that the season is coming to a close, our staff is looking back at all the feathered friends who used our grounds as a stop on their journeys.

Read more about migration season and how you can help birds arrive at their destinations safely.

Blackpoll warbler

Over the last couple months, Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) team members have spent many hours surveying what bird species have been utilizing the habitats here at the Detroit Zoo. Some of these species live here year-round, while many species have shown up during migration and will spend the summer here breeding on Zoo grounds. Additionally, several species have used the Zoo to rest or refuel for a matter of hours or days on a long journey home to their breeding grounds.

We have seen and heard many species of songbirds, black-crowned night herons, a redhead, spotted sandpipers and much more! From March until the end of May, we accumulated at least 93 species on Zoo grounds.

Canada warbler

The incredible journeys these brave travelers make every year are hard to put into words. Many winter as far south as Central or South America and may head far north of us into the Upper Peninsula or northern Canada to breed. The blackpoll warbler is one of these extraordinary migrants who recharged at the Zoo this May. This tiny, insectivorous species only weighs around 11 grams and sings a very high-pitched song. They often travel more than 10,000 miles round trip — including an Atlantic Ocean crossing — as they head back and forth from South America to northern Canada and Alaska. 

Migrating birds overcome extreme challenges when heading back and forth between breeding and wintering grounds. Besides exhaustion and native predators, there are many human-made challenges.  Fragmented habitats, light pollution, domestic cats and windows are just some of the man-made threats that make migration even harder. Here at the Detroit Zoo, we are proud to provide these birds an excellent, protected habitat on their perilous journeys.

Learn how you can help reduce light pollution and save birds’ lives.

— Matt Porter is a member of the DZS birds animal care staff.

Amazon Rainforest Conservation Partnership Helps Rural Communities

In March 2020, my suitcases were packed, and a group of 40 volunteers was ready to fly down to Iquitos, Peru to deliver school supplies to remote communities along the Amazon and Napo rivers in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest. 

Three days before my flight, Peru closed its borders in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.  The Peruvian school year starts in March, so schools didn’t open for months, and even then classes were hosted only virtually. This provided an opportunity for many of the students who lived in cities to attend but left behind the communities on the river, which had no devices or access to the internet. For two full years, Adopt-a-School community partners had no access to formal education. Even more devastating than the education gap, Peru holds the highest rate of COVID-19 fatalities out of any country in the world. 

This year, as I packed my bags again, I couldn’t help but wonder if we would be able to travel. With new variants being identified regularly, I was very conscious of the responsibility that comes with international travel. I needed to keep myself and  the communities we would be visiting healthy, as well as my family when I returned home. I took extra precautions, including wearing an N95 mask the entire time I was traveling through airports and on planes. As health care workers know all too well, wearing an N95 mask for 24 hours straight is challenging and not comfortable! 

When I arrived in Iquitos, I met with our partners at Conservación de la Naturaleza Amazónica del Peru AC (known as CONAPAC), the Peruvian nonprofit that facilitates the Adopt-a-School program and several other important projects in the rainforest. A small group of volunteers that had been scheduled for the 2020 trip joined us for the school supply deliveries. We reviewed our ambitious schedule of visiting nine schools each day for five straight days and packed all the school supplies onboard the cargo boat that would be traveling with us on the river. 

We traveled out to the farthest of Amazon Explorama’s lodges, Explor Napo, and settled in for the three nights we’d be staying there. On Monday morning, we packed our lunches, divided into three groups and headed out on the river. Each of the three boats had three to four  people aboard, plus the boat driver. The rides to the schools vary, from as little as 15 minutes to sometimes more than an hour. I was visiting one of the largest communities that first morning, and we spent about 45 minutes on the boat until we arrived at Urco Miraño. 

We spent several hours in the community, distributing a school supply packet to every kindergarten, elementary and high school student (more than 100 all together!), and their teachers. We also delivered supplies for the schools in general and notebooks for the community leaders. Access to quality learning materials is an equity issue. Most families living in rainforest communities don’t have easy access to cities to purchase materials, nor do they always have the financial means to do so. While the Peruvian government provides a school building and teachers, the gap in learning materials puts the remote communities at a distinct disadvantage from their peers in cities. Living in one of the world’s most biodiverse and ecologically important areas makes access to a quality education imperative to the future of the region. 

The process of traveling to communities and sharing school supplies repeated throughout the week. Toward the end of their school year (likely in September), we will reach out to all the teachers in the communities to ask what supplies they need for their classroom. That way, we can tailor the 2023 delivery to their needs. All the materials are purchased in Peru, which supports the local economy, ensures materials fit with local curriculum guidelines and drastically reduces shipping and customs fees. The supplies are purchased with donations from an international group of donors, many of whom have traveled to the rainforest previously. If you would like to support the Adopt-a-School program, ensuring access to educational opportunities in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, please visit our website for more information. 

– Claire Lannoye-Hall is the director of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Addressing Climate Change by Creating a Greener Community

As you walk through The Detroit Zoo, you may notice a lot of trees (follow along on our Trek). Trees are essential to the health of people, animals and the planet, which is why we are committed to taking steps to reduce our carbon footprint by adding even more to our lush grounds.

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) pledged to add a total of 2,000 trees by the end of 2022 to our campuses and in Metro Detroit communities. The average tree absorbs 48 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) and 1,673 gallons of storm water every year. Adding 2,000 trees (to the 7,000 trees currently growing at the Detroit Zoo), will make a big difference for nearby communities by helping to improve air and water quality. We have partnered with ReLeaf Michigan to help us organize group planting projects across Metro Detroit. 

In 2021, the DZS planted 641, and we have full confidence in our ability to plant our total goal by the end of this year. Most recently, Oakland County planted five trees donated by the DZS in celebration of Earth Day 2022.

We are well on our way to achieving our goal of making the world a greener place through sustainable practices such as tree planting.

In addition to other environmental benefits, trees and other vegetation reduce heat island effect (urbanized areas experiencing higher than average temperatures) by providing shade. According to the EPA, shaded surfaces may be 20–45°F cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded materials. The benefits from trees don’t stop there – they also provide shelter and food for birds, insects, and other critters such as squirrels. These animals then disperse the trees’ seeds, allowing new saplings to grow. 

We are meticulously selecting a variety of species of trees to add biodiversity to our campus, as well as focusing on native species, browsable trees (clippings that make great snacks for the animals who live at Detroit Zoo), habitat value (for example, birds are attracted to oak trees), and resistance to climate change.

Our tree planting initiative is only one of the steps we are taking to create greener future. The DZS has developed a unique, green roadmap called the Greenprint. This evolving plan guides our operations and is the plan by which we refine and improve our facilities and daily practices, develop new policies and programs and improve green literacy and action in our community. 

View our Shades of Green guide to learn more ways in which you can help lighten your impact on the Earth and the animals that we share it with.

Out of the Shadows: Celebrating International Dark Sky Week

Many of our older guests at the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center can likely remember a time when they looked up and saw a sea of stars peppered across the night sky, clear enough to count the constellations.

Today, things are different. As populations and industry have grown, artificial light has seeped into our night sky to the point where many of the younger generation have never seen a truly dark sky.

This month, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is raising awareness around this unfortunate phenomenon by helping our guests understand how they can protect our naturally dark night skies — and, in turn, help the animals we all know and love.

April 22-30 is International Dark Sky Week hosted by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). The IDA’s main goal is to fight against light pollution, which is the inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light. Research from the IDA and other institutions indicates light pollution can have serious environmental consequences for wildlife, the climate and human health.

How does light pollution harm your favorite animals?

Some of the most devastating impacts of light pollution have been to animals and their habitats. For an example, look no further than sea turtles. Though this species lives in the ocean, sea turtles hatch at night on the beach, with hatchlings finding their way to the water by detecting the bright horizon over the ocean. Artificial lights have been known to confuse hatchlings and draw them away from the water and away from survival. In the U.S. alone, millions of sea turtles die this way each year.

Closer to home, light pollution can have a harmful effect on bird populations. Birds who hunt or migrate at night use light from the moon and stars to guide their way. Artificial lights cause these birds to wander off course and into cities, where they are met with dangerous terrain. Once attracted to illuminated areas, birds collide with the glass of needlessly lit buildings and towers. According to the IDA, millions of birds die this way each year. Additionally, migratory birds depend on cues from properly timed seasonal schedules. Light pollution can cause these birds to migrate too early or too late and miss ideal climate conditions for nesting, foraging and other behaviors.

Outside of these two species, the effect of light pollution on wildlife can be subtler but no less harmful. Nocturnal animals have had their nighttime environments radically altered by light pollution, taking away the darkness prey species use for protection and confusing animals such as frogs and toads, who use nighttime croaking as part of their breeding rituals.

Artificial lights have been shown to disrupt normal nocturnal behaviors, causing inference with breeding and decreasing animal populations, according to the IDA. The worst part? Researchers are only just beginning to understand the ways light pollution has harmed animals and their environments.

What is the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) doing about light pollution?

DZS and Belle Isle Nature Center staff strongly believe in the importance of nurturing, celebrating and protecting the night sky everywhere. While Belle Isle will likely never be fully dark due to its proximity to the city, we do everything we can to preserve the island’s nighttime darkness and protect local wildlife.

The DZS is a partner with the Metro Detroit Nature Network, now known as SEMI Wild, which in 2017 signed the Urban Conservation Treaty for Migratory Birds, designating Metro Detroit an Urban Bird Treaty area. Among other things, the treaty promotes bird conservation through Lights Out programs. These programs, of which we are enthusiastic supporters, implement dark sky policies encouraging organizations and individuals to turn off or reduce interior and exterior lights during spring and fall migration to help provide safe passage to migratory birds — potentially saving the lives of thousands of our feathered friends in the Detroit area each year.

Another way we continue to protect dark skies is through community education and promoting programs that educate the public about the natural night sky and what the average person can do to fight light pollution.

This International Dark Sky Week, tune into the Detroit Zoo Facebook page to see multiple posts about dark skies, their connection to wildlife and how the DZS is celebrating the week.

You can also join us from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, May 7 for Statewide Astronomy Night. The Wayne State University Planetarium at the Belle Isle Nature Center will be hosting a free, outdoor-only event, where guests can observe the night sky through a variety of telescopes and binoculars. Wayne State presenters will also be on hand to offer tours of the constellations and conduct exciting demonstrations. The Nature Center will also host an installment of its Nature at Night series, where you can learn all about how local nocturnal animals navigate a nighttime world.

What can you do to fight light pollution?

While the problem of light pollution can seem insurmountable, every little action taken can make a big difference. Here are three things you can do at home and in your community to support naturally dark skies:

• Eliminate unnecessary indoor lighting. Unused lights — particularly in empty office buildings at night – should be turned off.

Make the switch to shielded outdoor lighting. Outdoor lighting should be shielded and directed downward, where it can illuminate the ground rather than contaminate the night sky.

Research and spread the word! Visit the IDA website to learn about light pollution and the organization’s efforts to preserve dark skies. Then become an advocate for them! Talk to your friends and family to raise awareness around light pollution and help them understand why they should make changes to protect the night sky.

If we all take steps to reduce light pollution in our own homes and neighborhoods, there is a chance that one day future generations — and their furriest friends — will be able to look up and lose count of the stars scattered across the dark night sky.

Amy Greene is the nature centers director for the DZS.

Notes from the Field: Monitoring Mudpuppies’ Lives Under the Ice

The Detroit River in the winter can be an inhospitable place. The temperatures dip into the teens, and the wind whips large plumes of snow from the tips of frozen waves. This large and fairly fast-moving river flows south and southwest, connecting Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie. The river plays an important role as a shipping channel for freighters carrying industrial compounds and other materials used for manufacturing. 

Underneath all of this ice and hustle and bustle, one of the river’s most curious and secretive animals is carrying about its business, breathing with large, bushy external gills, foraging along the rocky bottom for food and undergoing mysterious mating behaviors. This animal is known as the northern mudpuppy (necturus maculosus maculosus), and the frozen and harsh conditions of the Detroit River are just what it’s been waiting for all summer long. 

Winter view of the Detroit River taken from Belle Isle Park.

Mudpuppies are amphibians who inhabit lakes, streams and rivers all throughout the U.S. Midwest and into parts of Canada. It is a type of fully-aquatic salamander that utilizes external gills, which are flush with blood and used to extract oxygen from its aquatic environment. Its tail is large and paddle like, and its skin is covered in a thick layer of slime. These salamanders, like all amphibians, have permeable skin and are considered to be a good indicator of environmental quality. This is one of the reasons the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) began tracking the health and abundance of mudpuppies back in 2009.

In 2016, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources elevated the conservation status of the northern mudpuppy to a species of special concern. Since that time, the project has continued and expanded, focusing primarily on Belle Isle Park in the city of Detroit. The Detroit Zoo utilizes minnow traps to capture the mudpuppies without harming them while still collecting important data. The traps are baited with smelt and catfish bait to lure these aquatic salamanders into the minnow traps. The traps are set on the first day of the survey and pulled in on day two, so that the animals spend the least amount of time possible inside.  If a mudpuppy is found inside, DZS staff proceeds to gather data and observations about the animal, including size, weight and gender. The gills are checked for health and examined for parasites. The digits on all the limbs are checked for malformations, which could indicate the potential presence of pollutants in the river. 

Mudpuppy being weighed and examined before being released back into the Detroit river.

Once these measurements are taken, the animal is tagged with a Passive Integrated Transponder tag, which is injected into the base of the tail. This transponder can be scanned if the animal is captured again. Additionally, it tells DZS researchers useful information that can be used for future data analysis. In addition to these measurements, data is collected on water quality and additional environmental conditions, such as temperature and dissolved oxygen content. 

Based off the data so far, most mudpuppies are caught in late fall or early winter. During this time, male mudpuppies are pursuing females in the quickly cooling shallow water close to the island. Many times, staff has observed male and female mudpuppies in the same trap this time of year, most likely with the female entering the trap first before the eager male mudpuppy follows her inside. Once mudpuppies have successfully bred, the females deposit their eggs in spring, and within a month or two, the eggs hatch into several hundred baby mudpuppies!

All of this drama is taking place out on the frozen Detroit River. With ice floats and enormous boats hovering overhead, these specialized amphibians continue to live and breed intertwined in an urban environmental landscape that still holds many secrets yet to be revealed.

– Mark Vassallo is an amphibian department supervisor for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Detroit Zoological Society Honored with International Sustainability Award

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has been recognized by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) as the recipient of the 2020 Environmental Sustainability Award. The DZS is the first zoo or aquarium to receive environmental sustainability top honors from both WAZA and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (2015).

“We are so appreciative of this wonderful recognition by our peers,” said Ron Kagan, executive director and CEO for the Detroit Zoological Society. “The entire organization has committed to this journey toward environmental sustainability.”

The Greenprint Program is at the heart of the DZS’s efforts; it’s a sustainability roadmap that invites organizations and individuals to actively help the planet we all share. 

“The DZS strives to be a green leader and uses Greenprint to refine and improve facilities, business practices and educational initiatives,” said Rachel Handbury, manager of sustainability for the Detroit Zoological Society. 

The discontinuation of single-use water bottle sales at the Detroit Zoo in 2015 is just one of the many major sustainability initiatives led by the Detroit Zoological Society. This effort has kept more than 60,000 plastic bottles out of the waste stream annually. 

To further reduce waste, the DZS built an anaerobic digester in 2016 to compost 1 million pounds of manure and food waste annually. Every year, the digester allows the organization to divert over 500 tons of animal manure, bedding and food waste away from landfills, instead creating nutrient-rich compost and renewable energy. 

While the DZS is well on its way towards zero-waste operations, the organization’s sustainability work goes beyond what happens on the campuses of the Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center.

“From community cleanup efforts to recycling programs to green education events, helping people understand and care about the planet is at the forefront of our efforts,” said Kagan. “We’re always looking for ways to involve the community and inspire them to join us on this green journey.”

– Alexandra Bahou is the communications manager for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Share Your Love of Sustainability with Your Sweetheart

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Whether you like chocolate or candy, Valentine’s Day is a great excuse to share many delicious treats with your loved ones. There’s just one problem: not all of these treats are created equal when it comes to sustainability. Many food products, including a large amount of candy, contains an ingredient that has major effects on wildlife: palm oil.

Palm oil is a vegetable oil derived from the fruit of oil palm. It is used in a wide variety of products, especially in food and cleaning supplies. One positive aspect of palm oil is that less land is required to create the same yield as other vegetable oils. However, the demand for this product has become so high that land is being deforested at a very rapid rate to create space for these plantations. This deforestation is a direct contributor to habitat loss for many species, and it is estimated that the palm oil industry impacts 193 species with concerning conservation statuses. Among those impacted are species like orangutans, rhinos and tigers. Specifically, scientists believe that the 17% decline observed in the Sumatran subspecies of tiger over the past 20 years is heavily due to deforestation for palm oil plantations.

So, what qualifies as sustainable palm oil? The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a group formed to maintain standards and certify organizations producing and sourcing sustainable palm oil. There are several RSPO-certified producers that have committed to stopping certain industry actions to create better practices for both wildlife and people. These new standards call for transparency, the elimination of deforestation and better working conditions for laborers. By making these commitments, producers and organizations can work together to create a demand for sustainably sourced palm oil in our everyday products.

Consider the following actions to decrease the demand for unsustainable palm oil:

Support sustainable companies. Buy food, such as your Valentine’s Day candy, and other products from companies that source their palm oil from sustainable farms.

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Make your voice heard. Did you notice a certain company was not committed to using sustainable palm oil? Write them a letter to share your concerns and encourage more environmentally conscious operations. Our consumer voice can be quite impactful.

Create homemade gifts. Make a batch of cookies or chocolate-covered strawberries to gift instead of purchasing something from the store. Not only are you showing someone you care, but you can ensure that each ingredient used is a sustainable one.

Marissa Ratzenberger is a sustainability coordinator for the Detroit Zoological Society

 

Reusing is Always in Style

Clothing Donation
With changing seasons and styles, you may be digging through dressers only to find clothing that has not been worn in months. If you decide to create more space in your closet, what happens to your unwanted clothing? Even though items may seem outdated or worn, they have a much longer life than one might think. In most cases, clothing items can be reused in multiple capacities, so hold off on sending them out with the trash.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), roughly 8.9 million tons of clothing and footwear are sent to landfills with clothing being one of the world’s fastest growing waste streams. Not only can clothing become a material waste issue, but the production of textiles is a heavy contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, equating to roughly 1.2 billion tons of carbon per year. The average car could drive for over 260 million years to match the annual carbon footprint of the fashion industry.

Global textile production is also one of the largest consumers of water, both in the growth and processing of clothing materials. According to media reports, it takes roughly 2,000 gallons of water to create only one pair of jeans. This figure is over six times the amount of water that the average family uses per day. Water is also needed to dye clothing, which can often be discarded into waterways, polluting habitats.

For ideas on how to reduce textile waste, please consider the following actions:

  • Rethink fashion. Fast fashion is the production of clothing in high quantities with low quality materials to meet the latest trend. When purchasing new clothing, choose timeless pieces that will have a longer lifespan.
  • Recycle apparel. Donate unwanted clothing to a local charity. Not only is donating our clothing an action that reduces our impact on landfills, but it also provides resources to communities in need.
  • Reuse clothing. Consider purchasing some or all of your clothes from secondhand stores. Not only will you support the clothing reuse cycle, but your fashion will always be unique and you save money.
  • Repurpose items. If you do not want to part with your old t-shirt, consider repurposing it for a different use. Old textiles are great for use as household cleaning rags. Clothing can also be disassembled and turned into other items like headbands, napkins and scarves. Search some DIY projects and get creative!

    If you are interested in donating your clothing, there are several organizations that have local drop-off sites, including Goodwill and The Salvation Army. There are also organizations — like Simple Recycling and the Military Order of the Purple Heart — that pick up donations from your home. Research your local donation organizations and help decrease your clothing waste impact.  

Marissa Ratzenberger is a sustainability coordinator for the Detroit Zoological Society

Environmental E-Cycling Extravaganza

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The Detroit Zoological Society celebrated America Recycles Day on November 15 by hosting a community e-cycling (electronics recycling) drive at the Detroit Zoo. We received a whopping 36,000 pounds (18 tons) of old tube televisions, outdated computer equipment and a variety of broken household electronics – the weight equivalent to seven rhinos!  All of the material was recycled responsibly, alleviating our community members’ basements and avoiding the landfill.

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Recycling electronics is vital to our environment since not only does it divert waste from Michigan’s landfills (according to the EPA, electronics accounts for 20-50 million tons of global waste), but it also reduces hazardous waste from seeping into the soil and groundwater.  This is significant when you consider that the average old tube TV or computer monitor contains approximately 5 pounds of lead!

Recycled electronics are also filled with valuable minerals such as silicon, tin, copper, lead and gold; all of these minerals are required for future electronics. By recovering these minerals through recycling, we can reduce our reliance on mining raw materials from the earth.  Mining creates a host of problems including deforestation, destruction of habitats and creation of pollution.  Currently, only 12.5 percent of e-waste gets recycled, according to the EPA.  Rather than focusing on mining jungles for raw materials for new electronics, perhaps we should start focusing on a more sustainable place – the urban jungle.

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With the holiday season upon us and the latest and greatest electronic gadgets on many folks’ wish list, please consider the following actions:

  • Resist upgrading. Challenge yourself to use your current device longer (cell phone, tablet, etc.)
  • Purchase refurbished or older models. Support the recycling market and save yourself money
  • Recycle your unwanted electronics. Rather than keeping them in a drawer or your basement, recycle and return the needed minerals to use for future electronics

Many electronic manufacturers (Apple, Samsung, etc.) will take back their products for recycling.  For local recycling, SOCRRA, located at 995 Coolidge in Troy, takes electronics if you are a SOCRRA resident or business (member cities are Berkley, Beverly Hills, Birmingham, Clawson, Ferndale, Hazel Park, Huntington Woods, Lathrup Village, Oak Park, Pleasant Ridge, Royal Oak and Troy).  Research your local recycling facilities and decrease your e-waste impact.

– Rachel Handbury is the manager of sustainability for the Detroit Zoological Society.