The Zoo That Could Protect

This Zoo is a haven; on principles it stands.
A champion for creatures in and outside its care.
Bettering environments through science,
Sharing its knowledge and guidance,
Breaking ground in animal welfare.

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    A three-day journey from Michigan to California more than a decade ago marked the beginning of a new life for Asian elephants Winky and Wanda – and sparked an international conversation about how elephants are faring in captivity. The Detroit Zoo was the first zoo in the country to decide on ethical grounds to no longer keep elephants.

    In the wild, elephants have large home ranges and walk many miles every day. Captive environments limit the amount of space elephants have in which to travel and exercise, made even worse in cold-weather areas like Detroit. Michigan’s winters are too cold (and often too slippery) for elephants to be outside all the time. At times, the elephants at the Detroit Zoo had to spend months inside where they were not able to get the exercise or be on the soft, natural substrate they needed to stay healthy. Additionally, elephants are very social and need to live in large, socially complex families that provide opportunities for the social interactions and bonds they require.

    Winky and Wanda were moved to the Performing Animal Welfare Sanctuary (PAWS) in California in 2005 after it was determined that we could not provide the space and climate to keep them healthy (and happy). That single step has encouraged other zoos to make the same decision in the decade since and is reshaping public attitudes and values toward the humane treatment of animals.

    Animal Rescues

    The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is frequently asked to help with the rescue of exotic animals from private owners, pseudo-sanctuaries, roadside zoos and circuses. Through the DZS’s Kalter/Lezotte Fund for Wildlife Rescue, these animals are now receiving the appropriate health care, nutrition, enrichment, kindness and respect they deserve. Here are a few examples of some of our more noteworthy rescue efforts.


    Bärle was a polar bear that was born in the wild in Manitoba, Canada, but was captured as a cub and lived most of her years as a performing circus bear in scorching climates. In 2002, Bärle was rescued from the Suarez Brothers Circus in Puerto Rico and found sanctuary at the Detroit Zoo. Her arrival came shortly after we unveiled the largest polar bear facility in North America – the Arctic Ring of Life. She lived at the Detroit Zoo for 10 years, during which she became a mom to female Talini. Bärle came a long way from living in a tiny cage and performing circus tricks in an unhealthy environment to being a healthy, nurturing mother.


    Three lions that had been relegated to guarding a junkyard in Kansas found sanctuary at the Detroit Zoo after their rescue in 2009. A lioness found in a suspected drug house in Detroit in 1992 and a lion discovered in an abandoned house in Detroit in 1993 both lived out their remaining years in the care and comfort of the Detroit Zoo. Male Simba was owned by the royal family of Qatar before finding a new palace at the Detroit Zoo in 2012, where he currently resides.

    ""Grizzly Bears Mike, Thor and Boo

    Affectionately known as “the grizzly boys,” this trio of grizzly bear brothers was rescued as cubs after their mother was shot and killed by a poacher in Alaska. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game contacted the DZS, seeking a home for the then-10-month-old brothers. Mike, Thor and Boo have called the Detroit Zoo home since December 2011, arriving in Detroit via a FedEx plane.

    ""Texas Rescue

    In 2010, DZS provided assistance in the largest animal rescue operation in U.S. history, where more than 27,000 animals were seized from an international exotic animal dealer in Texas. Many DZS animal care staff worked tirelessly for months, giving countless animals their first-ever touch and expert care, including the basics of clean water, nutritious food, enrichment, kindness and respect. More than 1,100 of these animals found sanctuary at the Detroit Zoo, including 696 amphibians of 45 species, many of which can be seen in the National Amphibian Conservation Center.


    Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics

    Founded in 2009, Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE) is a resource for extensive captive animal welfare knowledge, research and best practices; a forum for discussions on exotic animal welfare science, practice and policy; and a center continually conducting research and training and recognizing advances in exotic animal welfare.

    Annual CZAWE workshops bring together animal care staff from all over the world to learn best practices, understand animals’ perspectives and experiences, address the challenges captivity imposes on welfare, and develop the skills necessary to assess and improve animals’ overall well-being. In 2014, DZS leaders were invited to assess and train animal welfare practices at the three largest zoos in China. In 2017, CZAWE co-hosted the 4th International Animal Welfare Symposium at the Detroit Zoo with the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a global organization for leading zoos and aquariums. The congress brought together 140 of the world’s experts in animal welfare representing accredited zoos and aquariums, regional accrediting associations, academia and animal welfare protection organizations to discuss issues of ethics and the future of zoos and aquariums.

    The DZS works continuously to understand how animals actually perceive their worlds and what we do to provide their care.  Understanding this allows us to provide them with care and conditions that will allow them to thrive, not just survive. When we design and construct a new animal habitat at the Detroit Zoo, the focus is on being expansive and naturalistic and on meeting the animals’ needs, as is the case with the Cotton Family Wolf Wilderness, the Great Apes of Harambee, the Arctic Ring of Life and the Polk Penguin Conservation Center.

    Learn more about our animal welfare initiatives

  • What Can You Do?

    If you observe an exotic animal being abused, living in deplorable conditions, etc., report it to the appropriate animal control agency.

    Support legislation at all levels to prohibit private possession of exotic animals.

    • Millions of wild animals, including reptiles, large felines, nonhuman primates, and others, are kept in private possession in the U.S. These exotic “pets” do not adjust well to a captive environment and require special care, housing, diet, and maintenance that the average person cannot provide.


    Spay/neuter is a proven way to reduce pet overpopulation, ensuring that all pets have a family to love them.

    • An animal is put down every 13 seconds due to pet overpopulation.


    Upcycle bales of straw from fall celebrations to area rescue shelters to help insulate outdoor shelters for dogs left outside by their owners.

    • One of the most common forms of animal cruelty are cases of animals left outside in dangerous weather.


    Help make shelter animals more comfortable by making a fleece blanket or cat play toy and donating it. Once the animals are adopted, their new guardians will be able to bring the blankets and toys home with them. Providing something familiar to the animals in their new surroundings can help them transition into their forever families.

    • Approximately 7.6 million companion animals enter animal shelters nationwide every year. And of those, approximately 2.7 million are adopted each year.


    Make your home wildlife friendly.

    • Small habits, such as securing garbage and feeding pets inside the home, can make a difference for the health and nutrition of local wildlife.


    Close the blinds, save the birds.

    • Birds will often fly into a window when they see the reflection of trees or the sky. Millions of birds die every year from colliding with windows, and these impacts can be reduced by simply putting decals on windows or using partially or fully closed vertical blinds.


    Avoid using pesticides and herbicides.

    • Chemicals from these products build up in soils and affect the native species food chain, harming some groups of animals and causing them to suffer greatly.