Feb 03

A Greener Zoo For All

As you probably heard, in 2016, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium surpassed two million visitors for the year. We are thrilled that so many people come every year to enjoy our zoo and educate themselves about conservation. Of course, having that many visitors does pose its own unique environmental challenges.

Fortunately, a group of zoo staff, helmed by Stephanie Huettner, assistant general curator and curator of birds, has taken the lead on keeping the zoo on a green path.

"Our group has existed for many years, but we were doing smaller things because we didn't have funding,” says Heuttner of her so-called green team. When the zoo was awarded a grant from the Peter Kiewit Foundation, they were able to partner with Verdis Group on a five-year energy and sustainability master plan that included a greenhouse gas inventory, establishment of baselines and goals, and identification of dozens of short- and long-term strategies in the areas of energy, water, waste and recycling.

“That's when things really took off,” says Heuttner. “Our goals were fairly modest when we set them in 2012, because we weren't sure of the support and funding we would receive. We set out to reduce both our energy and water usage by 10 percent for 2012-2015, and we achieved both of those goals.” This resulted in a $355,000 energy savings for the zoo, and roughly $85,000 in water savings.

Additionally, the zoo obtained grants from the Nebraska Environmental Trust (NET) and the Nebraska Recycling Association to install new recycling containers on the grounds, and signage to educate the public about what can and cannot go into them.

Verdis Group helped the green team establish a green revolving fund for future sustainability projects, both large and small -- everything from energy-efficient lighting upgrades for nearly every building on the grounds, to stickers near wall switches reminding staff to turn off the lights.

Heuttner says that while not everyone on staff is an official member of the green team, the entire zoo is committed to the effort. Many ideas, including replacing the individual Styrofoam cups for the bats’ gel diet with a cookie sheet system, and spot cleaning animal exhibits rather than hosing them down completely, came from the keepers themselves. “Everyone who works at the zoo is conservation-minded, so it's very easy to get people excited.”

The improvements are exciting for the public as well. The water bottle refilling stations save zoo visitors money, while keeping the whole family hydrated, and a new solar power project (also funded by an NET grant) at the Skyfari loading zone serves the dual purpose of collecting solar energy and providing shade– with an interactive feature on solar power --  for people in line.

Heuttner says that the green team is currently in the process of drafting a second sustainability plan and is constantly working with other departments at the zoo to ensure that sustainable solutions are used in every new project. While the zoo does compost, she says the next big project is getting the public involved in the effort. “It’s going to be a challenge, but we know it can be done.”