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.

Detroit Public Schools’ Student Scholars Prepare for Future in Detroit Zoo Program

This summer, the Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Family Foundation generously provided the opportunity for seven students from Detroit Public Schools to become part of the Applebaum Scholars Education Program. The goal of this program was to prepare high-achieving youth for successful experiences in college and work through a 10-day experience at the Detroit Zoo. Students were selected after submitting an essay demonstrating their passion for animals; they were also recommended by their teachers.

The first few days included an introduction to animal welfare through a variety of skill-building activities, including building a habitat for a crow living at the Howell Nature Center. The scholars then joined other high school students taking part in our Summer Safari Camp – Animal Welfare Workshop. During this experience, the Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare and education staff worked alongside youth to facilitate experiences that allowed them to learn about behavior from the perspective of an animal. Students crawled through the anteater habitat to see how an anteater sees and climbed in a bucket truck to view the surroundings from the vantage point of a giraffe. A training demonstration with a rescue dog was so impactful that one student shared her plans to apply what she’d learned toward training her own dog at home. The campers were then asked to make presentations with recommendations on how to improve the lives of animals that live at the Detroit Zoo, using the animal welfare knowledge they’d developed during their observations and camp experience.

In the final two days of the program, the Applebaum Scholars focused specifically on college readiness. They toured Wayne State University (WSU) and met with advisors, receiving scholarships because of the visit and related activities. WSU advisors then joined the students at the Detroit Zoo on their last day to provide a workshop on SAT preparedness, college application practice and financial aid assistance.

During the culminating ceremony, the student scholars shared stories of their experiences and showed deep gratitude to the Applebaum Family for the opportunity. We look forward to witnessing these scholars grow into successful young men and women.

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

Habitat Expansions Benefit Animal Welfare

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

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

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

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

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

Greenprint: Team Spirit Empowers Sustainable Business Practices

Reducing our ecological footprint, creating a more sustainable future and protecting wildlife and wild places – these are initiatives that are near and dear to the staff and board of the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS). Guided by the Greenprint, a strategic plan for operations at the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center, our goal is to inspire others to join us on our Green Journey as we continuously look for ways to live and operate in more sustainable ways. To accomplish this, we started from within.

The DZS Green Team was founded in 2002 – before the Greenprint was even conceived – to help minimize the ecological footprint of our operations and to educate staff and visitors about choices that enable us to live a more Earth-friendly lifestyle. Being a part of the team is voluntary; it is comprised of representatives from every DZS department who share their commitment, expertise and time to make the Zoo a greener place for staff, visitors, animals and the planet. The Green Team was a strong advocate for development of Greenprint goals and objectives and has been instrumental in carrying out those policies and procedures.

Because of our passion and accomplishments in these areas, we have become a regional leader in sustainable business practices.

Recent initiatives include building an anaerobic digester, which will annually convert 500 tons of animal manure and organic food waste into a methane-rich gas that will power the Zoo’s animal hospital. We are also keeping 60,000 plastic bottles out of the waste stream annually by no longer selling bottled water – previously the No. 1 seller at Zoo concessions. As part of this effort, we have free refillable filtered water stations throughout the Zoo and offer affordable reusable water bottles for guests. We also encourage visitors to purchase wildlife-themed reusable bags at our gift shops as we no longer provide plastic bags for purchases. We’ve incorporated permeable pavement into new visitor walkways and a parking lot, reducing storm water runoff and filtering pollutants. These are just a few of the steps we’ve taken on our Green Journey thus far.

Green Team members have assisted with projects ranging from educating Zoo visitors about the anaerobic digestion process to sorting trash at zero-waste events. Staff recently volunteered at the 2017 Metro Detroit Youth Day on Belle Isle, which drew more than 37,000 attendees. The Green Team educated participating children on the value of using a refillable water bottle in order to reduce plastic waste in Michigan. More than 4,000 Detroit Zoo refillable water bottles were given to the children during this event, thanks to a generous grant by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation.

DZS staff feel so strongly about plastic reduction that we have incorporated this initiative within many of our events. Our annual 5K/10K/Fun Walk, Run Wild for the Detroit Zoo, was one of the first races in the country to eliminate bottled water – instead, refillable bottles filled with fresh, chilled water are provided to participants after the race. Assistance from our Green Team was invaluable as we worked to accomplish this important sustainable task. Prior to the 2016 event, volunteers filled more than 4,200 water bottles for the racers. We are gearing up for the 2017 event on Sunday, September 10 – registration is open. Run Wild raises critical funds for the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex and veterinary care for the animals at the Detroit Zoo.

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

Uncovering Turtle Personalities

Several years ago, we developed a project through the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) Center for Zoo Animal Welfare to determine if we could identify specific personality traits in Blanding’s turtles. That’s right – turtles! Personality has been linked to survivorship in a number of species, and as the DZS is actively involved in conservation efforts with the Blanding’s turtle – a species of special concern in the state of Michigan – we wanted to learn more. Two personality traits emerged from our research: aggressiveness and exploration, with individuals ranging from low to high in either category. We also discovered that a connection exists between these traits and how Blanding’s turtles fare in the wild.

Researchers have been monitoring the population of Blanding’s turtles in Michigan for several years and making efforts to ensure their numbers don’t drop any further. Female Blanding’s turtles typically lay eggs this time of year, and they often travel rather long distances to find suitable nesting grounds. This certainly puts them at risk, especially as road mortality is one of the major threats they face. When baby turtles hatch, they must find their way back to water, which leaves them vulnerable to predation. The DZS became involved in a head-starting program for this species in 2011. This means that eggs are incubated at the Detroit Zoo and the hatchlings are allowed to grow up safely until they reach a certain size, at which point they are released back into the wild.

We used a series of behavioral tests to uncover specific personality traits, including what is often referred to as the mirror test. A mirror is placed in the testing space and the turtle can choose to approach it and to interact with it. As amazing as turtles are, they cannot recognize themselves in a mirror and hence perceive their reflection to be another turtle. By examining their reaction, we definitely saw each turtle as an individual. Some were reluctant to approach, some were uninterested, some were trying to interact gently, and some were very adamant that there was only room for one turtle in the pond!

Once we identified the personality traits, we wanted to understand what links there may be between personality and the turtles’ behavior and survival once released into their natural habitat. Field researchers from the University of Michigan-Flint tracked the turtles post-release for two years and shared their data with us.

Based on our analyses, turtles that demonstrated high exploration had better survival rates than those who scored low in exploration. During the first year, turtles that were more aggressive traveled further from their release site, but over the entire course of the tracking period, turtles that were more exploratory traveled the most. Turtles that were rated as more aggressive and exploratory were found basking more often. Turtles will rest in the sun to help thermoregulate. This helps them to be more energetically efficient, but being exposed may put them at higher risk of predation. The different personalities therefore behave in different ways that amount to a trade-off in risks and benefits.

Finally, all turtles, regardless of personality, showed a distinct preference for areas vegetated with cattails. Given this demonstrated preference, we now know that this type of habitat might really benefit turtles in future releases.

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

Notes from the Field – Wolf/Moose Research Continues on Isle Royale

The Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) ongoing involvement in the important conservation project Wolves & Moose of Isle Royale – the longest continuous study of any predator-prey system in the world – continued with a recent expedition to this remote island.

 

Isle Royale is located in the frigid waters of Lake Superior. At more than 40 miles long, it is the largest island in the largest of the Great Lakes. This national park is also home to a population of wolves and moose – moose first came in the early 1900s and wolves joined in the 1940s after crossing an “ice bridge” from Canada. For more than five decades, researchers have studied the lives of these animals and their fluctuating populations in order to better understand the ecology of predation and in turn, gain a better sense of our relationship with nature.

 

I recently traveled to Isle Royale with David Anthony, a DZS education specialist, to conduct research for this project. We took the ferry from Grand Portage, Minnesota to the Windigo Ranger Station on the southwest end of the island – the opposite side from where we conducted fieldwork in 2016.

 

Because ice bridges form more rarely between Isle Royale and Canada due to the changing climate, the wolf population at this location has dropped to only two closely related individuals. The Wolf-Moose Project currently focuses on how the moose population is responding to reduced wolf predation and how the forest is responding to the increased moose population. While there is a proposal to reintroduce more wolves, it is a complicated issue in part because Isle Royale is also a national park. The National Park Service is expected to decide on this proposal this fall.

 

Once we arrived at Windigo, we donned our heavy backpacks in a light rain for a 5-mile hike to our first camp, which was situated next to a large beaver pond. It was a cold, rainy night and rather unpleasant, but it was a relief that the next day was sunny and we were able to dry out our clothes and equipment.

We hiked 2-3 miles each day, carefully looking for moose bones in the dense forest, traveling up and down ridges and through swamps. On our first full day in the field, we located a nearly complete skeleton with an antlered skull. The skulls and teeth were an especially successful find, because when cut into a cross section, the rings of dentin in the teeth can be counted to age the moose – similar to counting tree rings – which provides important information on the moose population. The bones are also examined for signs of chewing by wolves as well as signs of arthritis – many moose at Isle Royale live longer and are more prone to developing arthritis than moose in areas with more predators.

 With this information, we then try to surmise the cause and time of death to learn more about when wolves were still predating or scavenging moose. Our team also documented the harmful effects moose are having on Isle Royale’s fir trees. Moose rely on the relatively soft fir tree needles for food during the winter, and in many areas, they have continually browsed the tops of fir trees so they stay short and cannot reproduce. With taller, reproducing fir trees becoming scarce on the island, the over-browsing of the short fir trees is a serious concern.

 

After several days, we hiked to our next camp on the shore of a sheltered harbor on Lake Superior. This site was situated next to an active beaver lodge that kept us up at night with tail slapping and the “kerplunk” of beavers diving under water. On our next trek, we found another, even larger antlered skull, and there was more clear evidence of wolf predation – or at least scavenging – with chewed-up leg bones found dragged away to shady trees nearby.

As we wrapped up our journey, we connected with another group of researchers exploring a different part of the island; both teams returned with moose bones and teeth for examination, marking a very successful field expedition.

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

Help us Protect a Billion Birds from Untimely Deaths

Every year, thousands of avid birders flock to important birding areas in the state of Michigan, hoping to see or hear a few of the millions of birds that are migrating to their breeding grounds. Birds migrate north to their breeding grounds mid-March through May; they then migrate south to their wintering grounds mid-August through October. Unfortunately, many migratory birds will meet an untimely death by colliding with glass or manmade structures, a phenomenon known as a bird collision or bird strike. It has been estimated that up to 1 billion bird-collision deaths occur every year in the U.S., according to the American Bird Conservancy. As humans continue to build structures that contain glass, the threat of bird collisions will also continue.

Birds and humans have a different visual system – we see the world differently. Glass appears invisible to birds and becomes a dangerous barrier they are unable to avoid. Oftentimes as a result, birds will fly directly into windows, causing fatal injuries. In some cases, a bird will fly away after a collision, but it will likely succumb to its injuries elsewhere.

The good news is that there are many things we can do to prevent these collisions from happening. Windows with blinds on them can be made safer to birds by keeping them partially or fully closed. Moving plants away from windows without blinds can prevent birds from thinking they can land on them. Moving bird feeders to within 3 feet of windows or more than 30 feet away from windows can prevent these collisions. There are also a variety of window films that reduce reflection on the outside of windows: ABC BirdTape can be hung vertically – 4 inches apart, or horizontally – 2 inches apart. One of the most common preventative measures people use is decals. Decals come in many shapes and forms but the most common type used is a bird silhouette decal. Companies and homeowners can also build bird-friendly buildings by incorporating reduced visibility of glass, incorporating designs in/on glass and minimizing the use of glass.

 

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The Detroit Zoological Society believes it’s important to take care of all birds, not just those that live at the Detroit Zoo. The DZS has been committed to tracking and preventing bird collisions on Zoo grounds since 2013. All newly hired employees are required to attend orientation and learn how to recognize and report bird collisions to their supervisors. Bird department personnel have used a variety of measures including ABC BirdTape, custom CollidEscape window film and bird decals to prevent collisions. The Polk Penguin Conservation Center has specially designed “fritted” glass, and we recently incorporated custom ORNILUX Bird Protection Glass into the renovated giraffe building – this glass contains a patterned UV coating, making it visible to birds but transparent to the human eye. Detroit Zoo visitors have access to educational flyers and displays about bird collisions at various locations throughout the Zoo and ABC BirdTape is available for purchase at the Zoofari Market.

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We encourage the community to take preventative measures to protect wild birds from colliding with windows in their homes, schools and businesses. Residents and property managers of high-rise buildings, apartments and condominiums can participate in the Detroit Audubon’s Project Safe Passage Great Lakes by turning off all building lights at night on unoccupied floors and spaces. Lights left on in buildings overnight are a major cause of nighttime collisions that kill millions of birds.

– Bonnie Van Dam is the associate curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society.