Nov 30

Browsing...Through the Holidays & All Year Long

‘Tis the season when people are doing a lot of browsing in stores and online for the perfect holiday gifts, but here at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, many of our animals love to browse 365 days a year.

“We could go through dump truck-loads of browse every single day,” says Roni Deever, the zoo’s browse coordinator. “Each of our elephants could easily eat 150 pounds each a day.”

Browse, which encompasses any parts of trees and shrubbery that animals can eat -- including bark and whole trunks in some cases – was once mainly limited to what could be found around the zoo. But since the arrival of the elephants, it has taken on an increasingly important role in our animal nutrition program for other large mammals, such as giraffes and rhinos, as well.

Deever works with the public and organizations, such as OPPD and local arborists, to coordinate browse donations to the zoo. “So much plant material gets cut down or falls during storms around the Metro every year,” she says. “Instead of it going to a landfill, we can use it to feed our animals.”

She also proactively plants browse sources throughout the zoo and the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari. “If you’re taking the train past the white rhino barn, you can see a big stand of bamboo that we planted two springs ago. And this past year, we’ve planted more than 3,000 willow sticks between the zoo and the Wildlife Safari Park,” says Deever, noting that this type of tree makes for particularly good browse because it is fast-growing and more sustainable than some others -- the willows planted near the pelican lagoon even receive recycled lagoon water.

Not all trees are fit for browse. For example, the zoo does not accept red maple or black locust as these species are toxic to the animals. “There’s a whole list of trees that we can use, and a whole list that we can’t,” says Deever. “That’s why we ask that people contact us first so that we can make sure we can accept the donation.”

Deever, a Zoo Academy graduate, says that her team is also trying a silage program that will allow them to preserve browse through the winter months. “We cut up a tree and stuff it in a five-pound bucket, getting all the air out. Then seal it for eight weeks in an anaerobic, warm environment to preserve it so we can have leafy browse throughout the winter.”

Last year, they filled 92 buckets, which added up to more than 1,200 pounds of browse. An impressive start, but Deever says they’re working on building a silage press so that, in the future, they can fill 55-gallon barrels instead of buckets.

“It’s all about giving the animals the best life possible,” says Deever. “In addition to providing a necessary nutritional component, you’ll see them foraging and working really hard on the browse. It helps bring out their natural behaviors.”

To find out if you have plant material that is eligible for the browse program, please contact browse@omahazoo.com. To learn more about ways to support the zoo, please contact the Omaha Zoo Foundation at 402-738-2073.