Detroit Zoo defends method of removing of native wildlife

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published July 28, 2020

 The newborn female red panda born July 1 stays close to her mother, Ash, in her nesting box. The zoo plans to keep her indoors for a few months due to the threat of disease and predation by native wildlife, specifically red foxes.

The newborn female red panda born July 1 stays close to her mother, Ash, in her nesting box. The zoo plans to keep her indoors for a few months due to the threat of disease and predation by native wildlife, specifically red foxes.

Photo provided by the Detroit Zoo

 The newborn female red panda born July 1 largely relies on her mother, Ash.

The newborn female red panda born July 1 largely relies on her mother, Ash.

Photo provided by the Detroit Zoo

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ROYAL OAK — The Detroit Zoological Society has opted to keep its newborn female red panda cub in an indoor holding area not open to the public due to the increased number of red foxes and other native wildlife in the zoo.

Foxes, raccoons, opossums and skunks can communicate diseases to animals at the zoo, and foxes present a double risk — they can kill animals that live at the Detroit Zoo, DZS Chief Life Sciences Officer Scott Carter said. In 2008, a red fox killed four Chilean flamingos in minutes.

“We trap, euthanize and remove (such native wildlife) under a permit from the Department of Natural Resources,” Carter said. “Foxes are literally impossible (to trap). We’ve tried and every other organization has tried. It requires that they are lethally dispatched.”

The zoo employs a team of people trained to respond in case a dangerous animal escapes to protect human life. The same team is responsible for dispatching red foxes with firearms when the zoo is closed in a small area not accessible to guests or zoo animals.

“Dispatching is conducted from the top of a building aiming down,” according to a zoo press release. “In addition to predator 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.”

The Michigan DNR notified the Detroit Zoo in June that it was launching an investigation into wildlife removal activities at the zoo after it received a complaint from a Huntington Woods resident, according to the release.

“This is something we hate to do,” Carter said. “We understand and respect that the DNR has to do its job, but we are concerned over their threat of criminal action. We have no choice but to protect zoo animals.”

He added that the zoo’s mission is to foster conservation, education and empathy for all animals in nature, but protecting the animals at the zoo is the top priority.

Carter said the zoo fears for the safety of the baby red panda, who was born July 1, as well as the other animals in the 125-acre zoo. He referred to red foxes and other native species that cause harm or spread disease as “innocent threats.”

The influx of red foxes from Huntington Woods neighborhoods is concerning, Carter said, because they can spread diseases such as leptospirosis, rabies, canine distemper, sarcoptic mange, roundworms and tapeworms.

While transmission of rabies requires direct contact, the other diseases can be transmitted through the urine or feces of the native wildlife. The zoo’s damage and nuisance control permit from the DNR, which it has held since 1983, does not allow it to release captured native wildlife in other areas due to the disease risks to animals that already live there, according to the release.

“As the human population grows and develops in this area, foxes as a species are very successful at living in urban developments,” Carter said. “They are very smart.”

He said that when foxes come into the zoo, they live in the wooded area that used to house the Dinosauria exhibit, which featured animatronic dinosaurs that moved, snarled and spat water.

Carter said the newborn red panda cub is doing well and spends her time in her nesting box with her mother, Ash. If the zoo determines that foxes are not a threat, he estimated that the zoo would allow her into the red panda habitat in a few months.

According to the release, the DZS consults with animal protection organizations like the Michigan Humane Society and The Humane Society of the United States to ensure it employs the most humane practices in managing native species exclusion and removal. It also holds a DNR permit that allows for the rehabilitation of animals or their transfer to a licensed rehabilitation specialist.

“Earlier this year, three young foxes were sent to a rehabilitation facility after they were successfully live-trapped on Detroit Zoo grounds,” the release states.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources did not return requests for comment by press time.

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