Greenprint: Trash from Great Lakes Turned into Art at Detroit Zoo

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) recently partnered with ArtRoad Nonprofit, an organization that provides art-based activities, instruction and supplies to elementary schools in southeastern Michigan that are lacking in art programs.

In addition to the incredible educational opportunities this organization shares with hundreds of students annually, they also reuse donated items within their art projects in order to reduce waste. This aspect of the organization especially appeals to us as we continue with our Greenprint initiatives and award-winning efforts to create a more sustainable future.

I recently had the opportunity to volunteer in an ArtRoad classroom, where we worked with students on repurposing various items into works of art. The students greeted me with a warm welcome, and knowing that I work at the Detroit Zoo, created penguin art using recycled vinyl for the birds’ feet.

In turn, I provided the students with journals that DZS staff created using recycled millage signs. We hope these journals will help the budding artists capture their imaginations on paper.

Recently, ArtRoad collaborated with the Alliance for the Great Lakes to collect recyclable materials and debris from the shorelines of Lake Michigan. Using these items, more than 150 elementary school students spent two months creating five fish sculptures, one for each of the five Great Lakes. This effort aims to bring awareness about the effects plastic pollution has on freshwater ecosystems.

We are excited to be able to share this educational and impactful project with Detroit Zoo visitors – these fish sculptures will be on display April 22-July 9. It’s only fitting that the art exhibition will be unveiled during GreenFest, our Earth Day celebration, and will be on display during Sunset at the Zoo, our annual fundraising gala that carries a theme this year of “Green is the New Black”, celebrating our groundbreaking efforts in sustainability.

Our recent initiatives 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 more than 500 tons of animal manure annually into methane-rich gas to power the Zoo’s animal hospital.

Be sure to check out the ArtRoad exhibition on your next visit to the Detroit Zoo!

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

Amphibian Conservation: Fired Up About Salamanders

From the days of old, salamanders have captured the imagination of humankind. Long ago, when people would place logs in a fire, brightly colored salamanders would often come scurrying away from the flames. Of course, this was because the salamander’s hiding place was burning, but people in medieval times assumed that the salamander was a creature that came from the flames. People supposed that salamanders were imbued with mystical properties and they became the alchemic symbol for the element of fire.

Despite this long-time association with flame, salamanders are unlikely to be found near a toasty fire. There are more than 600 species of salamanders known, and most of them prefer cool, damp places to live. These critters are often found in a variety of places, including under logs, in rock crevices, high in trees, or living in cool bodies of water, ranging from puddles to fast moving rivers.

Unlike lizards, which look similar to salamanders, salamanders have moist, scale-less skin. Salamanders use their unique skin to intake water, absorb nutrients, and even breathe.

Most species of salamanders are born with a larval stage, similar to the tadpole stage of a frog. The larval salamander is aquatic, has external gills, and has no limbs upon hatching. As the larva grows, it develops legs. Many species of salamanders undergo metamorphosis, losing their gills and undergoing other small body changes as they transfer from water to land.

Salamanders are critical indicators of environmental health, and are key players in the health of ecosystems. These animals serve as sentinels for anything that is changing in the environment. Such changes include pollution, disease or climate change. Almost 50 percent of salamander species are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Detroit Zoological Society is working toward preventing these wonderful creatures from going extinct through breeding and release programs, habitat restoration and population surveys.

We invite you to celebrate these remarkable creatures with us during a special event called Salamander Saturday on May 6. National Amphibian Conservation Center staff and volunteers will provide informative zookeeper talks, storytelling, games and crafts. This event is free with Detroit Zoo admission. Sneak a peek at salamanders and learn all about these unique animals during this fun family event.

– Dr. Ruth Marcec is the Director of the National Amphibian Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo.

GreenFest – A celebration of Earth Day

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” – Jane Goodall

For nearly 50 years, millions of people around the globe have been celebrating Earth Day. Held annually on April 22, Earth Day represents the birth of the modern environmental movement and a worldwide demonstration of support for environmental preservation. As a leader in sustainability, guided by our award-winning Greenprint initiatives, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) annually holds GreenFest at the Detroit Zoo as a celebration of Earth Day. This year’s event is scheduled for Saturday, April 22, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The event is free with Detroit Zoo admission and includes a variety of engaging activities as well as a sustainability tour – complete with 10 stations that showcase our Green Journey. Upon arrival, guests will be given a “passport” that can be stamped at each of the stations. The passports were created by DZS staff using recycled millage signs and can be taken home and used as a journal.

These stations will provide guests with information about our anaerobic digester – the first zoo-based system of its kind that will annually convert more than 500 tons of manure into electricity that will power our animal hospital – as well as permeable pavement, bird-strike reduction, vehicle maintenance, recycling and native-species gardening, among others. In addition, we will be sharing information on how visitors can incorporate these initiatives at home. For example, not everyone can build an anaerobic digester in their backyard, but many can choose to compost their food scraps; we will provide information on how to start doing so.

The first 3,000 guests who complete the sustainability tour will receive a reusable bag to help them as they join us on our Green Journey. There will also be a station for folks to take our Green Pledge – several pledges will be selected in a raffle to win a Detroit Zoo reusable water bottle.

GreenFest will also include chemistry demos, worm composting education, zookeeper talks, and much more.  Additionally, a travelling art exhibition by ArtRoad Nonprofit will be unveiled during the event, illustrating the impact of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

Attendees who bring a cell phone for recycling to GreenFest will receive a reduced admission price of $9. Admission is free for DZS members.

The DZS will also host Green Day at the Belle Isle Nature Center on April 22 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Green Day will feature crafts, games, storytelling, zookeeper talks and exhibits by local conservation groups.

Both GreenFest and Green Day events are initiatives of the DZS Greenprint, a strategic plan to refine and improve green practices and facilities at the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center, incorporate sustainability in all policies and programs and improve green literacy and action in the community.

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

Education: Citizen Scientists Help Study Butterflies

Butterflies aren’t just beautiful animals and important pollinators; they are also bio-indicators, which provide valuable information regarding the health of an ecosystem. Like amphibians, the butterfly is affected by even the slightest changes in the environment, signaling to scientists that something is amiss. When habitats are healthy and plentiful with food, water and shelter, bio-indicator populations are stable. When any piece of that puzzle falls away, populations fluctuate quickly and may decline rapidly.

Scientists can’t be everywhere to monitor species’ populations and keep track of changes. They count on people like us to be their eyes and ears in our communities and report this critical information. The Detroit Zoological Society is providing opportunities for our community to become citizen scientists and help the Michigan Butterfly Network collect vital information about our native butterfly species.

On April 6, a citizen science training workshop will be hosted at the Belle Isle Nature Center. The training will cover species identification, how to collect accurate data, how to report data and otherwise prepare attendees to be successful.

After the mandatory training, citizen scientists are asked to visit their census route at least six times throughout the summer field season. Each census route walk will last five minutes as the observer looks for butterflies in their immediate vicinity. Recording data is a very important part of the process; each species will be carefully documented on a form and submitted to the network.

There are many support materials and resources available and the training workshops will prepare participants for a successful season. The pre-requirements include a passion for our natural world, an interest in learning to identify up to 30 species of butterflies, and the ability to visit a census route six times over the course of the summer season.

If you’d like to learn more about the project or sign up to participate in the training workshops, please email education@dzs.org.

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

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.

Veterinary Care: From Kitty Cats to Big Cats

Two years ago, I left everything that was familiar to me to take a position as a veterinary technician for the Detroit Zoological Society. For the previous 14 years, I’d been working at a small animal veterinary practice. I enjoyed this time spent taking care of dogs and cats, which often consisted of collecting blood, placing intravenous catheters, cleaning teeth, administering medication, taking X-rays, monitoring anesthesia and assisting the veterinarian in surgery. But the day had come that I decided to leave the small animal veterinary world and begin my journey in zoo medicine.

I thought these two worlds would be extremely different, but I quickly learned how similar they really are. I still do all of the same work, just on a larger variety of animals – not to mention some much larger in size. At times, there are unique challenges. For example, while I’ve had plenty of experience collecting blood from 10-pound cats who are not at all happy to be at the vet, blood collection from a 260-pound lion is a completely different ball game.

A major part of my job at the Detroit Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex is collecting blood for routine testing, which is an important part of preventative healthcare in both domestic animals and zoo animals. We analyze blood to evaluate organ function – especially kidney function in aging cats – electrolyte status, hormone levels and more. If an animal becomes ill, blood tests can help to identify the health issue so we can develop treatment plans. Routine blood testing is just as important on healthy animals because it gives us a good baseline for comparison if the animal becomes ill in the future.

I was soon faced with the challenge of collecting blood from a feline without holding her or even sharing the same space with her. Luckily for me, the animal care staff trains the animals for voluntary blood collection, making it possible for us to complete the task. Training a medical behavior like this is a gradual systematic process that happens before blood is even collected. It requires the zookeepers to have a lot of skill and patience.

In November of 2015, I had the pleasure of meeting Erin, a 16-year-old female African lion. She had begun her training for blood collection five years prior, and participates in the training willingly. When she does what is asked of her, she’s given treats and verbal praise, such as, “Good girl, Erin”. She can decide not to participate whenever she likes, but most days she seems to enjoy the challenge of doing each behavior.

When training for blood collection begins, animal care staff first teaches an animal to place herself in the front area of her indoor holding area and to lie down when given a verbal cue to do so. Next, the zookeeper uses a long, hooked pole to gently pull her tail through a small gap located at the bottom of the stall door. They then hold her tail still so that I can place a tourniquet on her tail. Lastly, I visualize and palpate Erin’s tail vein and insert the needle to collect the blood sample.

Erin practices training weekly and we collect blood from her every six to 12 months. This helps Erin remain comfortable with medical procedures such as blood collection, administering injections and applying topical medications, if needed. We are able to accomplish these things with Erin’s willing cooperation and the use of anesthesia is not necessary, which is safer and more enjoyable for everyone.

Similar to domestic cats, large cats often get kidney disease as they age, which can cause high blood pressure. Every two months, a blood pressure monitoring device is used to measure Erin’s blood pressure values. In this case, the zookeepers practice the same training used for blood collection, but when the zookeeper gains access to Erin’s tail and holds it still, l place a blood pressure cuff on it instead of a tourniquet. Her blood pressure is measured by the same method that is used in humans; two values are taken into account: systolic pressure and diastolic pressure. With the information gathered over time, we are better able to identify if a health problem is developing so we can begin treatment sooner.

I cannot tell you enough how incredible it is to be part of this veterinary team who, along with the animal care staff, provide excellent care for the animals residing at the Detroit Zoo.

– Stacey Baker is a veterinary technician for the Detroit Zoological Society and works at the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

Animal Welfare: A Brown Bear’s Journey

This month, we are celebrating the 20th birthday of Polly, a Syrian brown bear who was rescued and found sanctuary at the Detroit Zoo when she was young. She arrived in September of 2000 after spending the first three-and-a-half years of her life in deplorable conditions. Polly was born at a private breeder’s facility in Virginia in 1997. When she was 4 months old, she was sold to a roadside circus on the East Coast that already had a small menagerie of other animals. When she became too big to handle, Polly was relegated to a small cage with a large, hamster-like performance wheel where she rocked back and forth incessantly.

Several complaints from disturbed circus visitors concerned about the bear’s living conditions prompted PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) to try to secure her freedom. After months of negotiations, PETA was successful in convincing the circus owner to relinquish the bear. The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) accepted PETA’s request to provide a new home for Polly, providing her with the chance to finally experience an environment in which her welfare was of the utmost importance.

After all these years in a safe and stimulating environment, cared for by dedicated DZS staff members, Polly still demonstrates some of the unnatural, stereotypic behaviors she developed living in a small cage, despite being in an environment that is much larger and more suitably complex and stimulating. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see animals continue to demonstrate such behaviors even after they are removed from the conditions that caused the behaviors in the first place.  These “behavioral scars” are not a reflection of current conditions, but rather of past traumatic experiences that forever alter an animal’s behavior and life. DZS staff members monitor Polly closely, as they do all of the animals, and use positive reinforcement training and environmental enrichment, as well as allowing her to exercise as much choice and control over her environment as possible to provide her with a safe and comfortable home that meets her physical, behavioral and emotional needs.

Polly reminds us that animals which are forced to perform for human entertainment in circuses and other “shows”, are usually harmed in the process of their training or their living conditions, and often irreparably. All animals deserve to live in environments in which they can thrive, not just survive, and once they are scarred, they often can never be fully healed, despite the great care sanctuaries, like the Detroit Zoo, provide them.

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