Bonnie Van Dam: From fins to feathers 2008.02.20

Written by David Green.


Bonnie Van Dam knew when she was a high school student in Morenci that she was destined to work with animals when she grew up. She just wasn’t clear about the species.

“I actually wanted to become a marine biologist when I was in high school,” she said. “I was crazy about whales and dolphins.”

Not too many years passed before she traded fins for feathers. It happened when she got to know some penguins.bonnie.spoon.chick.jpg

After Bonnie earned a zoology degree at Michigan State University, she was hired by the Nature Conservancy to do research for the Michigan Natural Features Inventory—a survey of native plants and animals where data is collected by traveling into woods, along the shoreline, across fields, etc.

Bonnie learned something important from that internship—she realized she wasn’t cut out for research in the field. She found a posting for a job opening at a zoo and thought that might be more to her liking.

She started working with the Detroit Zoological Society in 1994 and it was a good fit. She’s been there ever since.

Within two years, Bonnie was working as a senior zookeeper in the bird department. She worked primarily with the zoo’s penguins for five years.

Her work didn’t revolve around penguins entirely. Vultures, flamingos, storks, cranes, spoonbills—she’s become well acquainted with them all.

Along the way, Bonnie initiated the zoo’s artificial incubation and hand-rearing program. She’s had success with a variety of species ranging from hummingbirds to the Ruppell’s griffon—a vulture native to Africa.

In 2001, Bonnie was promoted to head zookeeper of the bird department and in 2006 she took another step upward, this time as associate curator of birds.

This puts her in charge of 11 other zoo employees who oversee five bird facilities housing more than 40 species.

Change of plans

Working with birds was certainly not what Bonnie saw in her future when she joined the zoo.

She started off in the mammal department and hoped to work her way toward marine mammals. One day she was told that she was lowest on the seniority list and that she would be moving to birds.

“I was devastated,” she said. “I cried.”

Her boss talked her into a six-month voluntary transfer and hinted that she was likely to enjoy it.

“I was hooked within a week,” she recalls. “I never mentioned the mammals again.”

It was the penguins that captured her interest. Bonnie describes them as a very perceptive bird who approached her as the new kid on the block. They’re aware of different voices and clothing—they even noticed the difference on the day Bonnie came to feed them after changing the color of her hair.

She’s felt like a school teacher as she’s handled the varying personalities—breaking up fights, dealing with the bully, chuckling at the teacher’s pet.

She’s had several opportunities to switch to new areas of the zoo, and she almost did it when an opening came up with the elephants. So far, she’s passed them all by and instead advanced further with the birds.

Eventually she left the penguins to broaden her range and she’s become known throughout the North American zoo community as an African spoonbill specialist. It’s her work with breeding that brings in calls from other institutions, but that’s been a long and often frustrating ordeal.

“Those birds are going to be the death of me,” she says.

When a new spoonbill facility was built at the zoo, the breeding stopped. It took a few years of experimentation to restore the program. It’s not as simple as capturing some new birds, Bonnie said, because zoos no longer take birds from the wild.

So far, only Detroit has had success with an indoor winter breeding program using artificial incubation.

“I never thought I would be doing this,” Bonnie said. “I never thought I would be working my way up this fast.”

Sometime in the future she would like to oversee an entire animal division at a zoo, but for now, she’ll continue working with her spoonbills and flamingos, the vultures and macaws and all the rest.

“It’s a great job.”

No shortage of interesting experiences outside the zoo 

Bonnie Van Dam doesn’t spend all her time inside the walls of the zoo. A highlight of her career came in 2000 after an ore freighter sank off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa.

Penguin rescue

The accident resulted in a massive spill of fuel oil that washed ashore on Dassen and Robben Islands, home to more than 40 percent of the world’s population of the  threatened African penguin.

The resulting rescue mission—in which Bonnie participated—still stands as the largest oil spill wildlife rescue operation ever undertaken.

About 40,000 penguins were airlifted by helicopter to a makeshift recovery area in a former train station in Cape Town. Bonnie served as a supervisor of about 1,300 birds, making sure they were healthy and fed, while volunteers worked to clean them. She was also responsible for leading the effort to rear the abandoned chicks—one of her specialties.

“I love penguins, but I’m not used to dealing with wild ones,” she said.bonnie.flamingo.jpg

Volunteers ended up with bruised and lacerated arms from the birds’ sharp beaks.

“I became pretty tired of seeing those penguins,” she said. “I was glad to come back home and visit my friendly ones.”

New technique

In March 2006, Bonnie received a grant to present her work on a new non-invasive radiograph (x-ray) technique for birds. Eighty proposals were submitted for presentation at the annual Association of Zoos and Aquariums regional conference. Bonnie was one of four presenters chosen to speak.

“In my field, we’re used to restraining birds physically or using anesthesia for x-rays,” she said.

Working with a vet tech, she decided to try taking x-rays of a penguin’s foot while it was just sitting on an ice pack. They were successful.

“We decided to broaden our horizon and try it on other birds.”

Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but they came up with a list of species where they had success. Sometimes it was as simple as placing a hood over the head. Simple, perhaps, but no one had done it before and Bonnie was eager to share her findings with colleagues from other zoos.


Many people are involved in the successful reintroduction of the osprey to southeast Michigan, and Bonnie is one of them.

Loss of wetland habitat and the extensive use of the pesticide DDT nearly eliminated the osprey from the state. By the late 1960s, biologists were aware of only 75 mating pairs in Michigan.

In 1998, a cooperative effort between the Detroit Zoological Society, the Huron-Clinton Metroparks Authority and the Michigan DNR began to bring osprey back to their native territory. Fifty-six birds have been released in the past 10 years.

Bonnie’s role comes early in the process.

At the zoo, she “head starts” six-week-old male chicks that have been collected from nests in northern Michigan. She makes sure they’re eating and have been given a clean bill of health from a veterinarian.

The birds are taken to metropark hacking towers—artificial nests where they are fed and eventually released—and Bonnie makes weekly visits to check on their progress.

The chicks fledge from the towers and return to breed the following year with a mate.

Plovers, too

Efforts to protect the fragile piping plover population in Michigan have been ongoing for years. At one point in the 1980s, there were only 13 known pairs remaining.

Bonnie serves as the captive rearing coordinator in Michigan. She spends some time in spring and summer at the University of Michigan biological station near Pellston to supervise the release of the endangered shorebird and also oversees the project from afar when she’s back at the zoo.

Workers are allowed to collect only abandoned eggs for the project and there were just 33 brought in last season.

The population has expanded to 55 pairs, and that’s considered great progress.

“We’re taking baby steps, but we’re definitely calling it a success,” Bonnie said. “It’s just taking time. We’re excited because they’re coming back and breeding.”

The plover project has become a family adventure. Bonnie’s mother comes along to watch the grandchildren—age three and five—while Bonnie is busy with the fieldwork.

“They love it,” she said. “It’s a very family-oriented place. There’s no TV. The kids are outside all day.”

When it comes to birds and zoos, Bonnie Van Dam isn’t the only name connected with Morenci. Monica Smith, who graduated a few years after Bonnie, works as a bird supervisor with the Toledo Zoo, and both women are involved with the plover project.

“What are the chances?” Bonnie asks. “From a one-stoplight town.”

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