Sacramento zoo seeks yard waste to feed giraffes, other critters

Sacramento homeowners struggling to stuff all their yard waste into the city’s green bins now have a new place to send it: the Sacramento Zoo.

Two weeks ago, zookeepers started dropping off door hangers in the nearby neighborhoods of Land Park and Hollywood Park. The tags ask for donations of yard waste, and list the types of trees and shrubs that various zoo animals find tasty. Such green stuff is known in the zoo trade as “browse.”

“We hope that it will take off so that donations can provide what we need instead of cutting on zoo property,” said Melissa McCartney, primary keeper of ungulate stock (giraffes, bongos and zebras) at the Sacramento Zoo. “The tree trimmings we need to provide the animals are more than what we can get.”

The list of desired plants includes many that are common in Sacramento: acacia, ash, bamboo, birch, bottlebrush, camellia, catalpa, cottonwood, crape myrtle, elm, grapevine, hackberry, Japanese maple, lemon, liquidambar, loquat, magnolia, mimosa, mulberry, orange, pear, photinia, sawleaf, sycamore, tulip, tupelo, willow and Xylosma.

The plants must not be treated with pesticide, whether chemical or organic, and must be free of disease. The zoo prefers large branches – 5 feet to 8 feet long, with leaves attached – and will not take small limbs or tree trunks.

To keep the browse fresh, the zoo would like to receive the branches the same day the tree or shrub is trimmed. Once washed and stored in a barn at the zoo, the browse will stay good for three to four days.

Residents can make an appointment to drop off the browse at the zoo, or, if they live within a 5-mile radius, make arrangements to have zookeepers pick up the branches.

“We try to arrange all of our pickups all at one time,” said McCartney. “We take care of animals in the morning, and spend some time in the afternoon to pick up some browse. Then we go back to finish feeding the animals, so we don’t have a lot of time.”

Just as people are learning about the potential benefits of eating organic food, zookeepers are finding that feeding animals natural food keeps them healthier.

Most of the ungulates and primates (orangutans, lemurs) like to eat leaves fresh off a tree branch or shrub. Some, like red river hogs, also strip the bark, while others, like the chimpanzee, eat flowers as well as leaves.

“There is also a real change in attitude about how important it is to give animals something to do as much as possible,” said McCartney. “If you just feed them pellets, there’s nothing for them to do. But if you give them a branch, it gives them stimulation and entertainment. You can have them healthy and happy.”

For example, the sitatunga, a marsh-dwelling antelope from central Africa, likes to play with his food.

“He likes the elm and mulberry, and after he strips all the leaves off, he likes to fight the branch with his horns,” said McCartney. “He gets the most enjoyment out of it.”

At least 40 animals at the Sacramento Zoo are fed browse daily, with the giraffes getting the most. An average adult giraffe will go through 75 to 100 pounds of leaves per day. With five giraffes, the zoo goes through half a truckload of tree branches a day.

“That’s a lot of branches, but we can’t provide that much,” said McCartney. “They will eat alfalfa hay and pellet food that’s designed for them, but the more branches we provide to them, the better. They will eat the leaves, strip the bark and look for more.”

The zoo currently goes through 30-40 large tree branches a day. In the past, when the zoo was smaller, caretakers could usually find enough browse by trimming the trees and shrubs on zoo property. But as the zoo expanded its exhibits with more animals, the need for browse increased.

In the past four years, the zoo has been reaching out to tree trimmers and neighbors. “I would go to my own house and cut,” said McCartney.

The zoo also got permission to cut overgrown trees and shrubs along highways; most of the trees along freeways are acacias, a favorite snack for giraffes.

And until recently, zookeepers kept track of when the city deployed the Claw to pick up piles of yard waste in residential neighborhoods and then drove around in a truck to scavenge desired tree branches before they were scooped up.

“Once the Claw was cut back, it also cut back on our opportunity to get browse,” said McCartney.

In the past six to eight months, zookeepers have been working to formalize the browse donation program. A Web page has been set up, as well as an email address.

As with humans, certain animals prefer certain types of leaves.

While giraffes eat almost anything, including bottlebrush, other animals are pickier. The red panda specializes in bamboo, while kangaroos like birch and willow. Emus and ostriches favor elm, while most of the primates prefer Japanese maple. The yellow-backed duiker enjoys the occasional hackberry.

A number of animals, including the sitatunga and Red River hogs, like mulberry.

“Mulberry is the chocolate chip cookie of the zoo,” said McCartney. “Nobody turns down mulberry.”

There are also a number of trees and shrubs that cannot be used as browse, as they are highly toxic to zoo animals. Oleander is one such plant, as are oak and camphor. Most pines are also not suitable, so residents hoping to get rid of their Christmas trees after the holidays are out of luck.

Still, McCartney doesn’t want to discourage residents from donating browse. If people don’t know what kind of tree or shrub they have, they can snap a picture of it and email it to the zoo, where the resident horticulturist can usually identify it.

Even though most people do not trim their trees or bushes during the summer, McCartney said the zoo is planning to publicize the browse donation program via door hangers, fliers and neighborhood newsletters in the coming weeks.

“If we get the word out, and people hang the flier on the fridge, when fall comes, then they will remember us,” she said.

For more information on the browse donation program, go to www.saczoo.org/browse. You can also call the zoo at (916) 808-5888 or e-mail browse@saczoo.org.