The Zoo That Could Preserve

This Zoo is so brave; it stands up to extinction.
Reviving species living on the brink.
Birds and butterflies,
Frogs and salamanders,
Without help may be gone in a blink.

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    A tiny Great Lakes piping plover nicknamed “Smalls” has become a symbol of the power and importance of “one” for the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) conservation efforts.

    Piping plovers are an endangered species of shorebirds, and the focus of a DZS-led conservation effort and captive-rearing program at the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston, Mich. Many abandoned plover eggs are delivered to the station so field workers can monitor and care for the chicks before they are released back into the wild. But last year, one tiny hatchling stood out above the rest.

    From his first moments on Earth, Smalls required round-the-clock care. He had difficulty hatching, experienced issues with his umbilical cord, developed a crooked toe, and caregivers were concerned he may have eye problems. Those who cared for him did so with determination as they focused on his recovery and development. Despite his many physical setbacks, this tiny bird survived and was released.

    Just a few weeks later, he was photographed on a beach in Florida – the first to arrive after a 1,200-mile journey from northern Michigan – to the delight of DZS staff. This tiny bird represents the importance of one individual and the DZS’s commitment to all the “ones” in its care. In Smalls’ case, being part of an endangered species makes his significance even greater, since every individual is important to the recovery of a species.

    Conservation - Partula Snail

    Partula Snail

    A once-extinct species of Tahitian land snail is officially on the road to being saved after intervention by DZS staff. For nearly three decades, the DZS has been breeding this snail as part of a collaborative effort with other institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). At one point in the 1980s, all the Partula nodosa snails in the world lived at the Detroit Zoo. In 2015, nearly a hundred P. nodosa snails bred at the Detroit Zoo were shipped to Tahiti as part of a collaborative restoration project to re-establish a wild population; another 60 snails were shipped the following year. The work began in 1989 as a project with 115 snails of five species, with the DZS concentrating its efforts on this one species and engaging other institutions to focus on the remaining four. There are now 4,000 individual P. nodosa snails living in North American zoos, all descendants from the Detroit Zoo’s original small group.

    Puerto Rican crested toad

    Puerto Rican Crested Toad and Wyoming Toad

    More than 40 percent of the planet’s 7,660 known amphibian species are threatened with extinction due to habitat loss, climate change, pollution, infectious diseases and other factors. The DZS is working to stem this decline through cooperative breeding programs and field conservation work all over the world.

    Nearly two decades of cooperative breeding efforts for the critically endangered Puerto Rican crested toad yielded the best results in the DZS’s history in 2015 with a record 22,571 tadpoles. Twenty tadpoles were retained for future breeding at the Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center while the rest were sent to Puerto Rico for release. In 2017, 5,635 tadpoles were released in Puerto Rico and another 11,226 were released in 2018 after two more successful breeding seasons at the Detroit Zoo.

    The DZS’s breeding program for the endangered Wyoming toad produced a record 3,945 tadpoles for release in 2014. In 2007, this program was No. 1 on the AZA’s list of the Top 10 wildlife conservation success stories. Seven hundred tadpoles were released in Wyoming in 2017 after another successful breeding season at the Detroit Zoo. This cooperative partnership has released more than 8,000 tadpoles, toadlets and toads in Wyoming since its inception in 1995.

    The DZS works with more than 100 amphibian species in these critical conservation efforts that work to restore populations in wild habitats.

    GRACE worker holding a gorilla


    The highly endangered Grauer’s gorilla, native to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is suffering from not only habitat destruction but also from illegal capture by poachers and traders. Only 5,000 remain in the wild. The Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) center in the DRC is the world’s only facility that cares for these animals after they have been rescued by wildlife authorities. The DZS began a partnership with GRACE in 2014; DZS CEO and Executive Director Ron Kagan currently serves on the board of GRACE and is a past chair. Among the DZS’s many roles is to provide help with veterinary care.  Our director of animal health, Dr. Ann Duncan, traveled to the Congo in 2015 to perform medical evaluations on 12 of the rescued gorillas. The DZS also supported construction of the night house, where the gorillas spend their evenings, and the road that people use to deliver supplies to GRACE. Additionally, we are assisting with the development of education programs for children and adults in nearby communities, including integration of humane messages for the primary and secondary school groups that they work with both onsite and in local villages. The staff engages with people of all ages, helping to foster behavioral changes that result in a positive impact for people, animals, and their shared home.

    We were recently honored, along with eight of our other partners, with the International Conservation Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for our work with GRACE.

    Learn more about our wildlife conservation efforts

  • What Can You Do?

    Donate to a foundation; volunteer; help spread the word.

    • There are 16,928 species listed as threatened with extinction and that number is continually on the rise.

    Learn about endangered species in your area.

    • You may be surprised to find that some of your animal neighbors are endangered. Do research and educate family and friends about ways they can help endangered species in their own backyards.

    Plant a garden for non-invasive species.

    • Native wildlife use native plants for food and shelter.

    your local chapter of FrogWatch USA.

    • The citizen science program teaches volunteers how to identify frogs and toads by their breeding calls and to gather and record data that supports a national network.