Animal Welfare – Understanding the Needs of Amphibians

The penguins living at the Polk Penguin Conservation Center are not the only water-dependent species being studied by the Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare (CZAW). We are conducting research to uncover indicators of welfare in frogs, toads and salamanders living at the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center.

Welfare indicators in amphibian species have largely consisted of body condition scoring and measures of reproductive success, neither of which provide comprehensive understanding of how individual animals are faring. Identifying additional indicators can help us to better understand the needs of amphibians living in zoos.

Due to the catastrophic declines in amphibian populations around the world in recent years, amphibian conservation has become a priority for zoos and other conservation organizations. While many institutions prioritize the management of captive populations of amphibians as one strategy in the preservation of these species, virtually no literature exists today regarding how the captive representatives of rapidly vanishing amphibians are faring. The Detroit Zoological Society created the National Amphibian Conservation Center nearly two decades ago, and it is still the largest facility dedicated to amphibian conservation and care in the world. CZAW is now conducting studies to help understand the individual preferences and behavioral and physiological responses of these animals to captive environments and husbandry practices, as well as individual capacities for coping with stressors of captive environments.

Housing animals in multi-species habitats is a common practice in zoos and aquariums. Some amphibians however, such as poison dart frog species, may be housed together due to their shared environmental requirements and their conspicuous aesthetics. Little research has been conducted on the impact that mixed-species living has on the welfare of the individuals. At CZAW, we have examined how different species partition their habitat and how their behavior may be impacted by one another. This helps us ensure that the needs of each animal are being met.

While much emphasis has been placed on the impacts of captivity on the welfare of large mammals, little attention has been granted to large amphibians living in the care of humans. Japanese giant salamanders are currently listed as Near Threatened by the International Union of Conservation of Nature and their wild numbers are decreasing due to habitat loss and hunting.

These salamanders present a unique challenge when it comes to habitat design, given their potential to grow up to 1.5 meters in length and their nocturnal activity patterns. Traditional ways of housing amphibians may not be as successful for giant salamanders and in turn may impact their welfare. The Immersion Gallery at the amphibian center is being renovated as a new habitat for the Japanese giant salamanders, with the goal of giving the animals increased physical and social choices. We are also developing a project to assess the ways in which this increase in choice can improve the welfare of the individual salamanders.

As we continue to study how amphibians can thrive in zoos, we not only help the individuals, but we can also contribute to the efforts being made to conserve them. Greater understanding of how individual captive amphibians are faring is critical to ensuring their well-being and to meeting ethical obligations of keeping animals in captivity.

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

Sustainability and Conservation Go Hand-in-Hand

The Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) award-winning sustainability initiatives go hand-in-hand with our commitment to wildlife conservation – every step we take to reduce our carbon footprint serves to protect the habitats of animals around the globe.

Wildlife are facing great challenges – from climate change and habitat loss to poaching and the exotic animal trade – leaving many species threatened, endangered or teetering on the brink of extinction. Human impact on the Earth has, in many cases, led to these dire situations they are in. More than 40 percent of all amphibians are at risk. From snow leopards to snails and from penguins to polar bears, the DZS is actively involved in wildlife conservation efforts worldwide – in the last two years alone, we were engaged in projects on six continents.

We have the power to make a difference. That’s why our inaugural Wildlife Conservation Gala on Saturday, March 18, is themed “Making a Difference”. All of us can take steps in our own lives to help reverse the crisis many animals are facing. It is our hope that our community will be motivated to join us on our Green Journey and commit to a better future for all that share this magnificent planet.

Our award-winning Greenprint initiative is a strategic plan that guides our operations and all that we do toward a more sustainable future. Our efforts include discontinuing the sale of bottled water on Detroit Zoo grounds – previously the No. 1 seller at zoo concessions – keeping 60,000 plastic bottles out of the waste stream annually. We also no longer provide plastic bags at our gift shops or souvenir stands; visitors are encouraged to bring their own bags or purchase wildlife-themed reusable bags.

We built the first zoo-based anaerobic digester in the country, which will annually convert more than 400 tons of animal manure into methane-rich gas to power the Detroit Zoo’s animal hospital. We recently unveiled a new parking lot that uses a progressive green design, reducing storm water runoff and improving water quality by filtering pollutants. Additionally, our operations are powered with 100 percent renewable electricity from wind farms, thanks to the support of the ITC Holdings Corp.

Our goal is to inspire others to join us on our Green Journey as we continuously look for ways to reduce our ecological footprint. By downloading our Shades of Green guide, you’ll find a number of actions you can do at home, including:

  • Switch to a reusable water bottle and reduce the amount of unnecessary plastic pollution
  • Bring reusable bags with you to the grocery store
  • Turn off the lights when you leave a room
  • Recycle
  • Plant native species in your garden to create a natural habitat for pollinators such as bees and butterflies

Please also consider joining us on March 18. By supporting the Wildlife Conservation Gala, you’ll help to ensure the long-term survival of critically endangered amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and invertebrates that represent the diversity of life on our planet. For more information or to purchase tickets to this 21-and-older, black-tie-optional affair, visit https://detroitzoo.org/events/zoo-events/conservation-gala.

Wildlife Conservation: All Along the Water Tower

Peregrine falcons are a cliff-nesting species whose populations were significantly reduced in the 1950s as a result of environmental contamination by the pesticide DDT. This dangerous chemical accumulated in adult birds and caused thin-shelled eggs, which broke during incubation. The population declined rapidly and by the early 1960s, peregrine falcons were extinct in the eastern U. S.; the last known pair nested in Michigan in 1957. It was one of the first species listed by the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

An effort to reintroduce peregrine falcons into urban environments began in 1982 when chicks were released, or “hacked”, from buildings, bridges and other man-made structures in cities throughout the eastern U.S. Because they strictly hunt birds, peregrines find ample prey in cities with their abundance of pigeons, doves, starlings and other city-dwelling species. This successful reintroduction effort led to peregrines nesting in cities throughout the Midwest and a growing population not only in cities, but in much of their former natural range such as the cliffs along Lake Superior. The now wild peregrine population did so well that they were removed from the federal endangered species list in 1999.

Peregrines currently nest at a number of locations in southeast Michigan including in Warren, Pontiac, Southfield, Grosse Pointe and seven different sites in Detroit. They nest in other Michigan cities as well including Grand Rapids, Lansing and Jackson. Many of the chicks are banded with unique combinations that allow for individual identification when they mature and establish their own nests. Locally, the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) veterinary staff works with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in the banding effort by performing health assessments as bands are put on pre-fledged chicks.

This past summer, DZS staff and local birders noticed a pair of peregrines perching on the Detroit Zoo’s iconic water tower and hunting pigeons at the Zoo and in Royal Oak. While difficult to see, the male was identified as Justice, a bird hatched in 2012 at the Jackson County Tower Building with a band combination of black/red, 08/P. The female is not banded so we do not know her age or hatch location, but they are a well bonded pair that is still observed around the Zoo.

Often when a pair of peregrines establish a territory such as the water tower with plentiful prey nearby, they will end up nesting at that site. Peregrines lay their eggs on gravel or dirt with minimal nesting material. Because the water tower did not have a proper area for the birds to build a nest, DZS staff worked with the DNR to design and construct a nest box that will meet the needs of the nesting birds. The box was recently installed on the water tower, which was not an easy task. The box is on the southeast side to offer protection from the wind while exposed to ample sunshine. It is visible from the westbound service drive as you wait for the light at Woodward.

We are thrilled that peregrines have chosen the Detroit Zoo as a home along with other native birds, such as the turkey vultures, great blue herons, double-crested cormorants and even the occasional visiting bald eagle. We are optimistic that peregrines will join the species that also nest at the Zoo, which includes wood ducks, green herons and the highly visible breeding colony of black-crowned night herons, a species normally found in secluded wetlands.

– Tom Schneider is the curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Education: Instilling Respect for Gorillas and the Environment in the Congo

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center (GRACE), located in the eastern part of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). GRACE is truly a special place – it is the only facility in the world that cares for highly endangered Grauer’s gorillas that have been rescued by wildlife authorities after being illegally captured by poachers and traders.

Grauer’s gorillas are endemic to this region and only approximately 4,000 remain in the wild. There are currently 14 gorillas residing at GRACE, where a dedicated Congolese staff provides daily care and monitors the group while they explore a 24-acre forest – the largest gorilla enclosure in the world.

GRACE is overseen by a dedicated board of directors, which includes Ron Kagan, Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) CEO and executive director, who has also served as board chair. In addition to Ron’s valuable leadership, the DZS’s involvement with GRACE also includes financial and staff support. In 2015, Ron helped secure funds for a new night house enclosure for the gorillas, which I was able to see in operation while I was there. Also in 2015, DZS Director of Animal Health Dr. Ann Duncan traveled to the Congo to perform health examinations on 12 gorillas, which had never been done before.

I traveled to the DRC with three staff members from Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the executive director of GRACE as part of the GRACE Education Advisory Group. We carried quite a bit of luggage with us, which included a number of veterinary medicines and supplies provided by the DZS.

While at GRACE, we worked extensively with the Congolese education team. We observed current programs, provided our feedback and facilitated trainings focused on methodology, messaging and differentiating instruction to meet the needs of their various audiences. We also began to draft a strategic plan for their education programming and evaluation efforts as they move forward. The team’s reach is vast; not only do they work with primary and secondary school groups onsite and in local villages, they also conduct programs with community groups and the military, to name a few. GRACE doesn’t have open visitation hours, so all of the groups that they work with have been scheduled by the educators. Throughout all that the team does, there’s a common theme of instilling reverence and respect for not only gorillas, but all animals and the environment. They work with people of all ages to help foster behavioral changes that result in a positive impact for people, animals and their shared home.

I can’t say enough about the amazing people that I met throughout the course of our visit. The team at GRACE is truly a hard-working, dedicated, passionate group of people and they give tremendous hope for the future. Additionally, on our last day at GRACE, we were fortunate to take part in a tour of the local village, led by the women’s cooperative, where we met many members of the community. We were invited into homes to see cooking demonstrations and to learn about some of the small-scale businesses they own and operate. We also visited Muyisa Primary School, where we were greeted with song and dance and hundreds of smiling faces. Everywhere we went, people were kind and welcoming. They definitely made it difficult for me to leave.

As we move forward, the Education Advisory Group and the Congolese educators will continue to meet by way of monthly conference calls. We’ll continue to advise efforts and offer additional training. I’ll also be working on developing humane education curriculum and projects for the children’s conservation clubs which currently exist in five communities. Stay tuned for more to come on that!

– Lisa Forzley is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Berman Academy for Humane Education.

Notes from the Field: Penguin Conservation Work Begins in the Falklands

When I was told that more people have landed on the moon than on North Island in the Falklands, I was thrilled that I would be able to join those lucky few. Though it may be just a tiny speck on the map in the south Atlantic Ocean, the Falklands are a new horizon for penguin conservation.

Detroit Zoo penguin keeper Charlie Ramsey and I headed to this remote island for a December 2016 expedition on behalf of the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) extensive worldwide wildlife conservation efforts. We joined officials from Falklands Conservation (FC) to conduct baseline population surveys of southern rockhopper penguins, black-browed albatross and other sea birds and wildlife on North Island and five other islands nearby that were recently acquired by FC.

The DZS has partnered with Falklands Conservation for several years, and with the recent opening of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, working with this organization directly in the field was a natural next step. The Falklands are critically important for several species of penguins that are also found at the Detroit Zoo, such as rockhoppers, gentoo and king penguins – but threats are looming from oil extraction and increasing ecotourism. It is thus essential to establish marine protected areas, and the DZS is working with Falklands Conservation reach this goal.

To get to our destination, we first flew to Punta Arenas, Chile, then to Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, where we hopped on a small six-person airplane to Weddell Island and then boarded the ship, Le Sourire, for a four-hour trip to the western edge of the Falklands. Over the calm seas, our journey was highlighted by dolphins playing in the ship’s wake, and as we approached North Island I could see why so few people had ever landed there. In addition to the sheer cliff faces, the only landing spot was occupied by sea lions. We had to scramble up the rock face and then work through thick tussock grass where the animals were resting. I had been warned not to get between sea lions and the ocean, and as they barreled down to the water after being disturbed, I could see why.

We safely arrived at the first penguin and albatross colony. In addition to gathering albatross fecal samples and penguin feathers for diet analyses, we also wanted to test how well a drone could be used for population surveys of the colonies. Charlie expertly flew the drone up to 275 yards high and at distances over 875 yards away, capturing incredible images of the colonies that were close enough to count individual birds and far enough away to see additional colonies over the whole island. The drone proved a very cost-efficient way to survey the island and shots of the cliff sides also helped the folks with Falklands Conservation to better appreciate how much they were being used by nesting birds.

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North Island was the focus of our expedition because it has not been grazed by sheep or cattle and remains relatively pristine. We also used the drone to assess the recovery of tussock grass on three other FC islands which varied greatly in condition. One had been only lightly grazed and tussock remained in dense stands as at North Island while the others were quite barren with tussock only starting to recover. Facilitating this recovery is one of the primary focuses of Falklands Conservation, and pictures from the drone will provide valuable metrics for comparison.

By the third day at sea, the weather had become more typical for the Falklands, with periods of relative calm interrupted by hail squalls. The rough seas prevented a return flight from Weddell Island so instead, we headed north to the ship owner’s farm near Dunbar. This proved fortuitous because the next day as the weather calmed a bit, we were able to observe two large colonies of gentoo penguins before the flight back to Stanley. We also had the opportunity to visit the rescue center which cares for oiled penguins. At the moment, the center only cares for a few penguins at a time but with increased oil development planned in the area, the number of oiled birds needing proper cleaning and rehabilitation is sure to increase. The Detroit Zoological Society is a leader in oil emergency responses, and with potential disasters looming in the Falklands, there may be opportunities for us to partner with FC in the future, using our training, experience and expertise in this area in addition to conducting further research.

– Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the Director of Conservation for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Education: 100 Hopeful Days

We could all use a little hope sometimes, especially when it comes to the environment. That’s why the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) has launched the #100HopefulDays campaign. NNOCCI is a collaborative effort to establish a network of professionals who are skilled in communicating climate science to broad audiences. These efforts are led by the New England Aquarium, in conjunction with some other amazing organizations, including the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA).

The #100HopefulDays campaign will highlight the ways the NNOCCI community is making positive changes in the world. There are people all over this planet who are working together and battling longstanding obstacles to make the world a better place for future generations. We feel it is our responsibility to take care of our natural resources by making practical and feasible choices – however great or small – to protect our environment. Through this campaign, the NNOCCI is sharing all of these actions and aiming to inspire, engage and focus on reasons to hope.

Creating a sustainable future is one of the pillars of the Detroit Zoological Society. Through our Greenprint initiative, our goal is to inspire others to join us on our Green Journey as we continuously look for ways to reduce our ecological footprint. Recent efforts include discontinuing the sale of bottled water on Zoo grounds – keeping 60,000 plastic bottles out of the waste stream annually – and building an anaerobic digester which will convert 400 tons of animal manure annually into methane-rich gas to power the Zoo’s animal hospital.

Our 20th annual fundraising 10K/5K event, Run Wild for the Detroit Zoo 2016, became one of the first races in the country to eliminate bottled water – instead, disposable bottles filled with fresh H20 were provided to participants after the race. We also no longer provide plastic bags at our gift shops or souvenir stands; visitors are encouraged to bring their own bags or purchase wildlife-themed reusable bags. We also recently unveiled a new parking lot that uses a progressive green design. Permeable pavement was incorporated into the lot with 215 new spaces, which reduces storm water runoff and improves water quality by filtering pollutants.

For all of these efforts and more, the Detroit Zoo was named one of Michigan’s and the nation’s 2016 Best and Brightest Sustainable Companies by the National Association for Business Resources as well as the 2015 Best-Managed Nonprofit by Crain’s Detroit Business.

Learn more about our Green Journey and download our Shades of Green guide to help lighten your impact on the Earth and the animals that share it with us. If you’re looking for reasons to feel hopeful and be inspired, follow the #100HopefulDays campaign at @_NNOCCI on Twitter. We can all make a difference and we need to start today.

– Carla Van Kampen is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Greenprint: Plastic in the Great Lakes

Approximately 21.8 million pounds of plastic flow into the Great Lakes every year, more than half of which ends up in Lake Michigan, according to the Rochester Institute of Technology. For another way to grasp this fact, think of it this way: The plastic pollution in Lake Michigan is about the equivalent of 100 Olympic-sized swimming pools filled with plastic bottles.

Photo by Rachel Handbury

While this study was the first to document our plastic problem, it is only the first step toward solving it. Perhaps imagining 100 pools full of plastic bottles will inspire members of our community to make the choice to limit their consumption of plastic altogether.

Approximately 80 percent of the litter on the shorelines of the Great Lakes is plastic, researchers estimate. This includes plastics that quickly sink to the bottom, as well as surface plastics like microbeads, fragments and pellets, plastic line and Styrofoam, which is often consumed by wildlife and likely causing harm.

Through our award-winning Greenprint initiative, the Detroit Zoological Society has taken steps to reduce plastic waste by eliminating the sale of bottled water at Detroit Zoo concessions and no longer providing plastic bags for purchases made at gift shops. Affordable reusable bottles and bags are instead available for purchase. We are also currently working on reducing the plastic packaging of items sold in Zoofari Market, Drake Passage Gifts and the Arctic Outpost. Please join us on our Green Journey by making a green New Year’s resolution to reduce your own plastic waste in the following ways:

  • Bring reusable bags on every trip to the grocery store.
  • Drink from a reusable water bottle and fill it from the tap.
  • Store food in glass containers instead of zip-top bags.
  • Pack waste-free meals using a lunch box.
  • Avoid plastic packaging. If the items you currently buy have excess plastic packaging, speak up to the manufacturer.
  • When ordering beverages in a restaurant, request that the server brings them without straws.
  • Avoid using disposable party-ware at your next event.
  • Read labels and do not purchase products containing microbeads.
  • If no plastic alternative is available for purchases, consider buying in bulk to avoid unnecessary plastic packaging.

Let’s keep the Great Lakes beautiful and safe for wildlife!

– Rachel Handbury is the manager of sustainability for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the implementation of Greenprint initiatives.