Notes from the Field: Treating Endangered African Vultures

This is the second in a series detailing the Detroit Zoological Society’s recent vulture conservation fieldwork in South Africa. For Part I, click here.

The Detroit Zoological Society’s latest field conservation project was with VulPro, an organization in South Africa that works to rehabilitate sick and injured vultures in order to return them to vulnerable wild populations. With seven of the 11 African vulture species currently endangered or critically endangered, the DZS is working with VulPro to reverse the crisis literally one vulture at a time.

Through community outreach efforts, sick vultures come to VulPro from as far as eight hours away. They arrive in all sorts of conditions, sometimes with broken bones or open wounds, signs of poisoning or evidence of electrocution, and they’re often dehydrated and starving.

I traveled to South Africa this winter to assist VulPro in their efforts. During my time there, a farmer discovered a Cape vulture on his land that was weak and unable to fly, and a VulPro volunteer drove several hours to collect the bird and bring him back to us. He was an older adult male who we affectionately called “Old Guy”, and when he arrived, he was too weak to stand or even lift his head. We immediately got to work. A brief assessment revealed that he was severely dehydrated. We secured an identification band, placed an intravenous catheter in a vein in his leg, and examined, cleaned and bandaged a wound on his left wing. The wound – as well as bruising along his elbow – were presumably caused by barbed wire and likely left him temporarily unable to fly.

We then moved Old Guy into an ICU unit – a small space that prevented him from pulling on his fluid line but also allows us to see him at all times – which also happened to be the shower in the VulPro director’s house. VulPro is a small but mighty non-profit, and the team makes creative use of every resource available, even if that means sharing the bathroom with a critical vulture patient. After 15 minutes, Old Guy was still quite lifeless, with a heart rate two times slower than a healthy vulture. We continued to keep a close watch, and after 45 minutes on fluids, he was able to stand on his own. Over the next several hours, Old Guy slowly came back to life. He was given a companion vulture overnight and both were moved to the outdoor hospital enclosures in the morning. Over the next few days, Old Guy improved dramatically and began eating on his own. He even got a bit feisty with us, which is a true sign of a healthy vulture.

Over the past two months, Old Guy has continued to improve, and he will be released later this month at VulPro’s release site in the Magaliesberg mountains.

VulPro also conducts many crucial research and population-level conservation initiatives, but saving individuals like Old Guy – one vulture at a time – is at the core of the mission of both the Detroit Zoological Society and VulPro. This truly exemplifies compassionate conservation.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and operates out of the Detroit Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Animal Welfare: How do You Know if They’re ‘Happy’?

Think about the term, “animal welfare”, and what it means to you. When you encounter an animal – in any setting, be it a zoo, a friend’s house or even your own living room – are there certain cues that help you decide if you feel the animal is having a good or a bad time – or experiencing positive or negative welfare? It may be the animal’s appearance, behaviors, what the space looks like where they live, or perhaps it’s based on your knowledge about that species.

In some cases, it’s relatively easy to determine that an animal is in a poor welfare state. If they’re living in dirty and cramped conditions, don’t have access to social partners – or perhaps too many – or if they have obvious signs of injuries or illness without any indication they’re under veterinary care, it’s likely the animal is not experiencing good welfare. But when you look at other, less obvious factors, such as if the animal is quietly resting in a spacious habitat, or if the animal is moving back and forth in one area of their space, the answers are less clear.

The concept of animal welfare refers to an animal’s physical, mental and emotional states over a period of time. It is based on the individual’s experience, which can be different from one species to another, and from one animal to another. It is not about what is provided to an animal, such as food and water – this doesn’t automatically ensure good welfare. Although having access to these resources is critical to creating conditions that may lead to good welfare, it is actually how the animal perceives those conditions that determines their welfare. We can’t simply measure welfare in terms of square footage, gallons of water or the nutritional content of food items. We must use indicators from the animals themselves, such as behavior, physical condition and even emotional responses.

These indicators represent the three different concepts of welfare. The first has to do with an animal’s ability to engage in natural behaviors, or live in a way it has evolved to. The second involves biological functioning and prioritizes an animal’s physical health. The last focuses on the animal’s feelings and emotional states, with an emphasis on minimizing negative emotions and promoting positive ones. Should we favor one concept over another, it is possible we would miss something important to an individual animal.

If two people were to assess an animal using two different concepts, they could come to conflicting conclusions about that animal’s welfare state. This is why we incorporate aspects of all three of these concepts when evaluating animal welfare. This allows us to gain a much more holistic picture of the animal’s experience and to consider all of the factors that impact their well-being.

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

Preparing the Next Generation of Wildlife Protectors

As a leader in conservation work across six continents, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is saving animals from extinction. Dedicated DZS professionals work year-round to support this important work, fueled by a passion to protect and preserve wildlife and wild places for future generations. Our animal care staff have an obvious role in this important work, but every staff member has a meaningful part.

Each year, close to 20,000 students and teachers participate in programs and experiences designed to inspire the next generation of wildlife protectors. The learning experiences engage participants with hands-on activities as they build essential process skills and meet classroom curriculum requirements while encouraging them to join us in our mission of Celebrating and Saving Wildlife. A great example of this type of programming is our Conservation Project Learning Labs, which includes programs designed for school groups that feature DZS conservation work. The Conservation Project: Panamanian Golden Frog Learning Lab for upper elementary and middle school students is one of the most requested school programs we offer.

When the students arrive for this program, staff greet them by welcoming them to “Panama”. A brief introduction covers what a Species Survival Plan is and how the DZS works with other zoos and aquariums across the country to ensure the survival of selected species, many of which are threatened or endangered. Panamanian golden frogs have not been found in the wild in more than 10 years, making the populations being raised in zoos and aquariums a lifeline for the species to exist. The students have important work to do during their visit: They’re responsible for determining the best site in Panama to release Panamanian golden frogs into their native habitat.

The students rotate through a series of stations to emulate how professional wildlife ecologists work in the field. Simulated habitats planted in large containers allow students to test water quality from a running stream, check for signs of human activity in the area, and swab plants and rocks in the model to check for diseases that would impact the frogs’ health. The students collect and record data at each potential release site, then move on to “assess the health” of rubber frogs by weighing and measuring each one as animal care staff would. At the final station, the students decide which of the three sites frogs should be released at based on the data they collected.

Programs that allow participants to see themselves as scientists and practice skills through realistic, hands-on activities create experiences to remember. The students walk away empowered and inspired to become future wildlife advocates. To review a complete list of programs available for school groups, visit https://detroitzoo.org/education/teachers-and-schools/learning-labs/.

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

Turn Your Backyard into a Wildlife Sanctuary

As spring finally arrives, our neighborhoods are quickly coming back to life after a long winter’s slumber. Each morning we wake up to birds singing outside our windows and wildlife stirring from their winter hideouts as they venture out in search of food and companionship. We have an important role in their success as we own and care for much of the space they call home.

Our yards are becoming increasingly important sanctuaries for native wildlife. With open spaces quickly dwindling to new subdivisions, commercial buildings and parking lots, there is little left for the species who have always lived here. By sharing our backyards with birds, pollinators, small mammals, amphibians and reptiles, we’re keeping the ecosystem intact and benefiting all species, including ourselves.

Birds, amphibians and bats all help keep the insect population in control, making our summer afternoons more enjoyable without constantly swatting away mosquitos and other winged nuisances. Pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, provide us with beautiful flowers and are responsible for fertilizing crops, ultimately producing one out of every three bites of food we eat. Snakes eat insects and small rodents, keeping populations in control and out of our sheds, garages and homes. To keep these natural systems in balance, we need to minimize our impact on their daily routines.

It’s relatively easy to create an oasis for wildlife while we continue to enjoy our outdoor space. Last spring, DZS staff planned and prepared a Backyards for Wildlife site near the Detroit Zoo’s American Coney Island to demonstrate how simple projects in our backyards can have a positive impact for wildlife. Volunteers from the Ford Motor Company helped to plant a variety of native flowers, grasses and shrubs in the area, and laid a wood chip path to lead guests into the space, which will soon be full of blooming flowers and busy pollinators.

In preparation for GreenFest on April 27, the site will be enhanced with signage that suggests simple things homeowners can do in their yards. These tips include:

Install rain barrels on downspouts. Collecting rain to irrigate lawns and gardens can save homeowners as much as $35 a month on summer water bills.

Keep your cat indoors to save songbirds. Wildlife biologists estimate that as many as one in every 10 songbirds are killed by domestic cats. Keeping cats indoors may also prevent the spread of many feline illnesses.

Install a bat house. Before you call an exterminator to spray for unwanted mosquitos, consider installing a bat house. A bat can eat up to a thousand mosquitos in a single evening!

Build a birdhouse. A birdhouse can be a fun project to build and paint with children. It will provide a safe shelter for birds raising their young.

Incorporate native plants in your landscape. Native plants require less water and care than introduced species, they come back year-after-year and are important food sources for birds, butterflies and other pollinators. Even if you live in an apartment and only have a balcony, a potted plant or small window box can provide many of these same benefits to native wildlife. For suggestions on where to buy native plants, visit https://detroitzoo.org/who/ and select the “Certify Your Habitat” dropdown.

Our Backyards for Wildlife site is a place for learning and enjoyment for humans, and a great example of how our personal choices can make a positive difference for our non-human neighbors. Join us at GreenFest on April 27, to learn more as we celebrate Earth Day with demonstrations from our Green Team, conservation education, citizen science projects and exhibits by local conservation groups.

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

Notes from the Field: Eurasian Otter Conservation Continues in Armenia

The Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) latest wildlife conservation initiative, preserving endangered Eurasian otters, continued with an expedition to Armenia in late 2018. Their status in this country has declined dramatically in recent years while numbers have also fallen in neighboring Azerbaijan and Iran.

Our first goal of the project is to understand where the otter population currently stands throughout the regions of Armenia that contain separate river systems, which provide suitable habitats for otters. These 13 systems – called watersheds – don’t always show signs of otters inhabiting them, so the DZS is working to identify and prioritize which of those locations are best suited for the preservation of this species.

On our first expedition in June, we discovered that the otter populations the southcentral region of Armenia were significantly greater than expected. If these conclusions are accurate, it would be rare but exciting news in conservation work.

We returned in December and traveled to watershed areas in north and central Armenia to confirm the presence and relative abundance of otters in these regions During these investigations, we confirmed reports of otter conflict with humans in the area. Otters were found to be eating the trout in fish farms that would eventually be reintroduced to Lake Sevan as part of a native species restocking project.

Surveys conducted on foot of the areas near Arpi Lake National Park and Dilijan National Park showed signs of the presence of otters, including tracks, feces and other indicators such as partially eaten fish. These surveys, along with interviews with local residents, suggest that hunting by humans has also led to the decline of otters in the area.

Additionally, photographs downloaded from our trail camera along the Arpa River revealed not only otters, but illegal fishermen. Proof of this activity will help us greatly in making a case to establish a protected area. In addition to documenting illegal fishing in these areas, which depletes otter food sources, we’ve also documented illegal otter trapping efforts. We hope that if this illegal activity can be stopped, migration of otters from neighboring populations will help restore their numers in the area.

Plans for 2019 include reviewing additional trail camera images from Arpi Lake National Park, and surveying the remaining watersheds in Armenia. After completing this work, we will be able to provide a robust update on the status of otters in this country. With that information, we can continue to explore options to set up sustainable protected areas, as well as develop local education programs to enhance otter conservation in these important areas.

– Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the field conservation officer for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Families Find Joy at the Detroit Zoo During Stressful Times

Research tells us that when children experience major life stressors, such as domestic violence or homelessness, they can begin to shut down and stop taking in information. The Detroit Zoological Society has begun a new outreach campaign with our evening program, Nocturnal Adventures, that offers the opportunity for private groups to explore the Detroit Zoo through guided tours, activities and storytelling in a more personal setting.

More than 220 individuals who are coping with difficult life circumstances have had the opportunity to share a positive experience together during these private evenings at the Zoo through our partnerships with HAVEN, Turning Point, First Step, the Coalition on Temporary Shelter and the Macomb County Rotating Emergency Shelter Team. It is our hope that by fostering a sense of wonder and wow for the natural world within these children and their guardians, we can bring them some peace and even joy during their otherwise stressful and challenging times.

The program is made possible through a Kellogg Foundation grant, and includes transportation, dinner, a tour of the Zoo and an education program that focuses on the stories of rescued animals who have found sanctuary at the Detroit Zoo. These animals have either suffered injury in the wild or come from unfortunate circumstances requiring intervention and oftentimes specialized care. Toward the end of the evening, there is a craft activity for the children and then the family is able to sit around a bonfire and make s’mores together.

It’s important that we provide this opportunity for these families to visit the Zoo in a safe and less stressful environment. Each visit – which they may not have otherwise had the chance to have – allows these families to spend time together in nature and make observations of the magnificent animals who live at the Zoo.

We look forward to what the future will bring as we continue to build relationships within our community.

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

Creating Environmental Stewards in the Amazon

Imagine if you were a teacher and your outdoor classroom was the Amazon rainforest. Endless biodiversity of every species of plant and animal you can imagine exists just a step outside your classroom walls. However, your teacher preparation was at a university in a city, and you have no idea where to begin teaching about ecology beyond what you’ve read in a teacher prep textbook. On top of these challenges, the only way to reach the community you’ve been assigned to work in is to take a boat down the Amazon River. The trip takes several hours, which means you’re only home on weekends and rarely have an opportunity to learn with or connect to other teachers.

Such is the case for the dedicated employees of CONAPAC, the Civil Association for Conservation of the Peruvian Amazon Environment, which was formed in July 1990 by a group of teachers, forestry engineers, and employees of the travel operator Explorama Lodges in Iquitos, Peru. Registered with the Peruvian government, its purpose is the conservation of the Peruvian Amazon primary rainforest. Though the staff is small, it serves those most in need of education and other tools for sustainable living in the rainforest, with the help of Explorama Lodges. The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has been a partner in this important conservation and education program for nearly 20 years.

As part of the services and support CONAPAC provides partner communities, an annual teacher workshop brings educators in these rural, remote communities together to learn. Earlier this year, Karen Purcell from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology returned for the second time to provide professional development for these teachers. Fluent in Spanish and passionate about birds, she delivers dynamic, hands-on workshops that demonstrates what teachers can do with their students by having the teachers do it with her. Guides from Explorama Lodges, who are also bird experts, assisted by guiding the teachers to understand how binoculars work, how they add excitement to bird observation, and how to identify common species.

Karen created a safe place for the teachers to share their attitudes towards birds, addressing common misconceptions and dispelling myths and legends that often cause people to dislike or even dispatch birds. She prepared them to be citizen scientists, gathering and sharing data on the species they see most in theircommunities. The teachers continue to document their successes and encourage one another through a massive group chat in WhatsApp. While there may not be internet access in these communities, almost all the teachers have a cell phone that has service and a means to charge the phone by generator or solar panel collected energy. Not a week goes by without a teacher posting photos of his or her students looking for birds, drawing them, building replica nests or some other activity. Karen and the team from CONAPAC are all on the group chat, documenting the progress in real time of how the workshop content is being implemented.

In early November, DZS staff returned to the rainforest to assist with end-of-the-year evaluations in each community. Teams of CONAPAC staff, Iquitos Board of Education representatives, local environmental experts and DZS staff traveled to each community to ensure school supplies are being utilized, children and teachers are attending school regularly, and that the teachers are implementing their skills and concepts shared with them during the workshops. The artwork, poems, field work and skits that the communities shared with the teams provided solid evidence that the spring workshops were a tremendous success.

Professional development is an essential part of any profession. The CONAPAC teacher workshops are a vital part of creating the next generation of environmental stewards, providing teachers and students the information and passion needed for protecting the rainforest for generations to come. This year’s workshop was supported through the generous financial support of JBQ Charitable Foundation and Explorama Lodges.  An international donor-base further provides financial support to provide annual teacher and student school supplies. To learn more or to participate in these efforts, visit https://detroitzoo.org/support/give/adopt-a-school/.

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