Detroit Zoo animals, staff adjust to a strange new reality

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — Animals at the zoo have noticed we're not around. The question is, do they miss us?

The answer might eventually be found in rhino poop.

Based on observation, a few zoos are reporting emus or orangutans so lonely for people they've practically joined Tinder. At the Detroit Zoo, Scott Carter is into hard data — and he's planning to look for it in what the two white rhinoceroses leave behind. 

Animals like these chimpanzees at the Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak may be missing the regular attention of adoring human visitors.

Carter, 62, is chief life sciences officer for the Detroit Zoological Society, which puts him second on the food chain. The coronavirus pandemic has brought him a herd of worries, ranging from layoffs to treating a chimpanzee with a toothache to an ailing tiger in New York.

There have also been some opportunities since the zoo closed to the public in mid-March. Trees are being trimmed, a project much easier to undertake without visitors. Penguins and horses have gone for strolls — the first a delight for the zoo's fans online, the second a curiosity for the grizzly bears.

And there's the opportunity for research into a zookeeper's persistent puzzlement: What's going on inside all of those furry, fuzzy, scaly or feathered heads?

"It's really important for us to understand how animals see their world," Carter says, "because many animals perceive things differently than we do. The rhinos, the red pandas, the aardvarks — for each of these, the measure is different."

As is the poop. "We're not sure we can get good samples from red pandas," Carter says, which is why he'll focus on the rhinos.

The mystery in the manure is cortisol, a hormone produced in response to stress. Are 3,700-pound rhinoceroses less edgy in the absence of humans?

The No. 1 way to check is to analyze No. 2. It's not the be-all, end-all, but it's quantifiable.

The zoo, meanwhile, let 135 people go in late March, leaving 160 still employed.

Everyone in animal care has been retained, Carter says, except for an administrative assistant. The veterinary staff still reports for duty, which is how a chimp got herself a root canal even though the process made a monkey out of social distancing.

"All of the security staff are still working," he says, plus the facilities team: HVAC, carpenter, electrician, plumber. A "tiny corps" from finance is making sure the animals get fed and the people get paid.

Working from home, he says, a small band of educators are tracking down content for Virtual Vitamin Z, the zoo's online showplace. That's where house-bound parents and kids can find live animal cams focused on falcons, prairie dogs and others, and where thousands of people watched a penguin explore life outside its chilly home.

FILE - A White Rhino pictured at the Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak.

"People loved that," Carter says, "and the penguins seemed to enjoy it. They didn't go very far."

Horses and donkeys have been led on midday walks, says mammal supervisor Mary Humbyrd, taking unusually long journeys at a time the pathways are normally reserved for humans.

Within limits, she says, "we let them dictate where they want to go. One of my keepers told me the horses calmly walked by the bear den. The bears were, 'Hey, what's that? We don't normally see that.'"

A wolf had a similar reaction, says Mike Barger, to a crew removing a dead tree that was hanging out of its enclosure and menacing the miniature railroad.

"We were in a lift above," says Barger, an arborist and supervisor with SavATree. "He seemed very interested in what was going on. He kept circling around."

Barger conducts inspections every month or two to make sure no limbs are putting zoo patrons or residents in obvious danger. Ordinarily, he says, crews have to work in limited daylight before or after the park opens, making the pandemic an unfortunate blessing.

In the past few weeks, his team has removed a dozen trees and installed steel cables to reinforce large limbs in the lion exhibit. They also worked in the great ape and snow monkey areas, prompting precautions beyond the standard work gloves and surgical masks.

"We don't want to catch anything they might have, and vice-versa," Barger says. Heaven and live cams only know where the primates have climbed and what they've touched, so the tree trimmers wore Tyvek suits and rubber gloves and sprayed disinfectant on their boots.

The parking lot is empty at the closed Detroit Zoo, Friday, April 24, 2020.

When COVID-19 struck, Carter says, "we assumed that primates were susceptible." An unpleasant surprise came in early April when a Malayan tiger at the Bronx zoo tested positive.

Four other tigers and three lions there were later found to have the virus. While all have recovered, the Detroit Zoo immediately provided facial shields for the keepers working with big cats, as well as those who deal with three other meat-eaters: wolverines, red pandas and otters. Access to lions and tigers has been limited to their care staff.

Zookeepers were already wearing masks and gloves, Carter says, and he suspects that many animals have noticed the change in attire.

Likewise, he says, "We believe that for some species, what's happening outside their habitats is part of their visual environment. It's very different now, but what we can't answer is how much they're affected by that."

At the Denver Zoo, a curator says a gibbon named Vinh and an emu called Ralph have been actively looking for visitors.

Ninety minutes south at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, staffers say the wallabies are demanding extra affection in the absence of guests who used to hand-feed them. They declare the banging of a Bornean orangutan in her enclosure to be a call for attention.

At the Detroit Zoo, Humbyrd shares the appreciation for other creatures' powers of observation, "but I can't speculate for sure on how it's making them feel. It's something we're cautious about when we talk about the animals."

A Gray Crowned Crane is seen in this file photo from the Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak.

There's a word for ascribing human characteristics to animals or objects: anthropomorphism.

"We're all guilty of it," Carter says, "usually in a way that's favorable to us."

But no, your dog isn't smiling. Dogs can't do that. And if zebras seem unusually attentive to zookeepers, it could be they're lonely for people, or it could be they'd like a snack, or it could be a dozen other things.

Carter can't ask them, but he and his staff can take notes and make comparisons.

"All animals have a behavioral observation component," he says, meaning they do measurable things. Where do they like to spend time, and what do they do in those locations? Do they make themselves more visible when people aren't?

With people now on lockdown, too, "we can compare two different conditions, with guests and no guests," he says. "From that, we'll have to draw conclusions."

Excretion is a potentially important part of the equation. Researchers considered using the end result from red pandas, but "we need to know who it came from," Carter says, and the zoo's four specimens are too intermingled for that.

The rhinos, Tamba and Jasiri, sleep in separate areas, and while they are not physically active overnight, they produce a lot of material to take to the lab.

Green, fibrous, elephant-like material. Mounds of it.

Whatever else might be in doubt, that's something Carter can count on.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn