Growing green: feeding animals and guests

Organic lettuce, tomatoes, basil, radishes, cabbage, green beans – it’s what’s for lunch at the Zoo, for our guests and our animals. With the help of Dallas County’s Master Gardeners, we’re harvesting nutrient-rich produce to feed our four- and two-legged friends.

Across our 106-acre property, we’ve planted multiple dietary supplemental gardens for our animals, as well as bulk “browse gardens” filled with woody plants for our large herbivores. And to feed our guests, we have an organic chef’s garden used to create lunch specials at Prime Meridian Cafe in ZooNorth.

“It can’t get any fresher than this. Other vegetables 10 miles away are transported on a truck, burning fossil fuels. We’re reducing our carbon footprint,” said Randy Johnson, horticulture manager. “Most people can’t even eat all organic, and we’re giving it to our animals.”

Every week after the animal produce is harvested, it’s sent to our state-of-the-art Animal Nutrition Center (ANC) for processing, cleaning, and measuring. “The produce grown on-site makes us so much more appreciative of what we’re serving our animals,” said Aaron Bussell, nutrition supervisor. “And it’s very beneficial to our zookeepers. They have more variety to offer the animals.”

With thousands of animal mouths to feed each day, totaling more than 20,000 pounds of food weekly, Bussell says any amount of produce grown on-site helps. “It’s one less case of food a week of 60 cases we’re sending out to our animals. We’re starting small, but it’s already making an impact,” he said.

Future plans include planting another half-dozen organic gardens on zoo grounds. Plus, a special treat is in store for our giraffes, zebras, and elephants – insert brag – since we are the only zoo in the U.S. to incorporate these majestic animals into one habitat. Soon the entire back perimeter of the Giants of the Savanna habitat will be lined with woody browse, including one of their favorite snacks – red tip photinia, Johnson says.

For the human mouths, our executive chef, Dan Bevis, and sous chef, Jacob Hunter, are incorporating delicious veggies into your meals, too. Every other day, they’re out in their 400-square-foot garden, watering and harvesting produce.

“It’s not just hamburgers and hotdogs at the Zoo,” Bevis said. “We’re creating unique, fresh and organic dishes every day. We take a lot of pride in our garden – watching it grow gives me an incredible amount of pleasure.”

And it’s that passion and commitment to fresh ingredients that is changing our guest’s perceptions of zoo food every day – from daily specials in Prime Meridian, to catered events such as company picnics.

And we couldn’t do it without the tremendous help from Dallas County’s Master Gardeners, who are here weekly keeping our gardens green and giving.

Woody plants for our large herbivores grow near the elephant barn.
Woody plants for our large herbivores grow near the elephant barn.
Dallas Zoo/Ashley Allen
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Categories: Conservation, Enrichment, Horticulture, Nutrition | Leave a comment

Digging for breakfast: It’s a hog thing

A few times a month in the Giants of the Savanna habitat, you’ll see our four resident hogs with their bottoms up in the air, tails wagging as they shovel dirt with their tusks and noses.

It takes a lot of arm strength and sweat for keeper Christina Eastwood to cut foot-deep holes in the Texas clay for warthogs and red river hogs in their Giants of the Savanna habitats.
It takes a lot of arm strength and sweat for keeper Christina Eastwood to cut foot-deep holes in the Texas clay for warthogs and red river hogs in their Giants of the Savanna habitats.
Dallas Zoo/Cathy Burkey
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Hank and Riley, our red river hogs, and Marge and Akoko, our warthogs, dig deep into the ground searching for their breakfast. To keep the hogs enriched, their keepers like to make them work to find their food, just as they would in the wild.A hog’s most natural behavior, when it comes to foraging, is to smell for their food in the ground and dig for it, searching for things like sweet potatoes and tree roots. It’s common for them to dig a few feet down to find their next meal.However, hiding food for some of our animals isn’t as easy as you may think. Armed with a posthole digger, mammal keeper Christina Eastwood gets quite the arm workout plowing through the tough Texas clay. Each time, she creates six holes in the red river hog habitat and another six for the warthogs.

After all the holes are dug, she drops in their food — a combination of pelleted grain and a variety of produce. “These guys prefer to work for their food,” Eastwood said. “Our No. 1 goal is to try and elicit natural behaviors. If these guys were in the wild, they’d spend the majority of their day foraging, when they’re not sleeping.”

The holes are then covered up and the hogs are let in. They usually begin sniffing for their normal scattered food on the ground. When that’s nowhere to be found, Eastwood says they know it’s a “challenging day.” With their incredible sense of smell, the hogs quickly find the holes and begin digging. They kneel down, fold their ankles under, and use their snouts as shovels.

Even after they’ve found all the food, they’ll go back to every hole to double-check that nothing was left behind. “Even a week later, Riley will keep checking the holes, thinking maybe food magically appeared or maybe she left one little piece behind,” Eastwood said with a laugh.

And as much as we want our hogs to stay enriched and active, we also want our guests to experience one of their natural behaviors. So come early on your next visit to the Zoo and you just may see those bottoms up in the air, digging for breakfast.

Check out this video to see how keepers challenge our warthogs and red river hogs to forage for their food.

Categories: Africa, Enrichment, Exhibits and Experiences, Mammals, Nutrition, Zookeepers | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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