Detroit Zoo Protects Newborn Red Panda
Detroit Zoological Society faces challenges in humanely removing native injurious wildlife
July 8, 2020
ROYAL OAK, Mich.,
An animal birth is normally a celebratory time at the Detroit Zoo, yet the red panda cub born on July 1 highlights the threats posed by native wildlife that get into the 125-acre Zoo from the surrounding area.
“We have recently spotted more red foxes on Detroit Zoo grounds,” said Scott Carter, chief life sciences officer for the Detroit Zoological Society. “We fear for the safety of the baby red panda as well as other animals. As was the case last year, we must keep the baby in a holding area indoors for months.”
Native animals that can cause harm or spread disease are often referred to as “pests” or “nuisance” animals. Technically, these animals are “innocent threats,” and they can be extremely difficult to control when there is a regular influx from the neighborhood.
“Protecting the Zoo’s animals against the threat of native injurious wildlife is an absolute necessity,” said Carter. “Zoo animals in our care have been injured, even killed, by local predators. Foxes and other native wildlife, including raccoons and skunks, can also carry diseases, which can pose a risk to humans as well. The threat is constantly top of mind as Oakland County has confirmed rabies in skunks near the Zoo this year and in 2019.”
Leptospirosis, rabies, canine distemper, Sarcoptic mange, roundworms and tapeworms are all diseases that can be transmitted to Zoo animals from red foxes. Transmission of rabies requires direct contact, but these other diseases can be transmitted to Zoo animals simply through urine or feces of native animals that have passed through the Zoo’s expansive and naturalistic habitats.
Following a complaint by a Huntington Woods resident, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources — a fellow conservation-focused organization — informed the DZS in June that they were launching an investigation into wildlife removal activities at the Detroit Zoo.
Since 1983, the Detroit Zoo has held a permit from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to protect the animals, visitors, staff and volunteers from these animal threats. The Zoo’s Damage and Nuisance Control permit does not allow the DZS to release captured native wildlife in other areas due to the disease risks presented by released animals to the animals that already live there.
Native animals that present serious risk to the Zoo’s animals are captured in live traps when possible and then euthanized by veterinary staff. However, foxes are extremely difficult to capture and generally must be dispatched with firearms.
Foxes alone present life-threatening risks of predation and disease transmission to nearly 300 animals at the Detroit Zoo, including species like red pandas, river otters, tree kangaroos, prairie dogs, flamingos, swans, peafowl, wolverines, tigers, lions and wolves. In one of the more devastating incidents, a single red fox killed four Chilean flamingos within minutes at the Detroit Zoo in 2008.
The DZS maintains a team of specially and regularly trained staff as part of its dangerous animal escape emergency response preparedness. When necessary, members of this team conduct lethal dispatch activities when the Zoo is closed in a small area that is not accessible to guests or any of the Zoo’s animals. Dispatching is conducted from the top of a building aiming down.
In addition to predator control and daily patrols of the 2.2-mile border fence, the DZS is installing electric “hot grass” around the perimeter of the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest. However, the only way to keep all animals at the Zoo safe, considering the large natural environments, is to remove native predators if they are found within the Zoo’s 125 acres.
The DZS always considers compassionate ways to relocate native wildlife when legal to do so and when possible. The DZS consults with animal protection organizations like the Michigan Humane Society and the Humane Society of the United States to continuously assess and help to further enhance humane practices when managing native species. The DZS also holds a DNR permit that allows for the rehabilitation of animals or their transfer to another licensed rehabilitator. Earlier this year, three young foxes were sent to a rehabilitation facility after they were successfully live-trapped on Detroit Zoo grounds.
“We understand and respect that the DNR has to do its job, but we are concerned over their threat of criminal action,” said Carter. “We have no choice but to protect Zoo animals.”