The Greatway: Omaha zoo collects tree limb donations to feed animals in a sustainable way


Kamrin Baker

In the effort to promote positivity and trust surrounding journalism, the Gateway aims to write a series of good news stories throughout the year. Titled “the Greatway,” we hope to establish a foundation of service and pride in the UNO community. If you know anyone doing something great on campus, drop us a line at our Facebook page!

Graphic by Okina Tran/The Gateway

Feeding time took on a new meaning when Roni Deever, the browse coordinator at the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo (and UNO alum), put out a call on Facebook asking community members to donate their fallen tree limbs to some of their hungrier animals.

This call came after the surprise snowstorm Omaha experienced in the middle of October, leaving thousands of residents without power—and with fallen branches and twigs scattered among their yards.

Deever’s job as the browse coordinator is to work to gather and plant a variety of food sources (like tree and shrub material) for the browsing animals at the facility. Those animals include herbivores like giraffes, apes, Indian rhinos and elephants.

With the off-season snowfall and its after effects, Deever figured she might try to do her job in a sustainable and community-centered entered way, and the response was nothing short of—well, a giraffe’s neck.

Photo by Kamrin Baker/the Gateway

“This is our first time doing a Facebook post, and it was phenomenal,” Deever said. “I got hundreds of emails and calls asking how people could help out. I was really overwhelmed by the response.”

In total, the browse department received about 65 donations, which totaled to approximately 15,000 pounds worth of tree and shrub product.

Deever said that browse animals are natural foraging animals, making leaves and sticks a big component of a regular diet. They can eat a wide variety of plant and tree species, but most commonly are elm, willow, linden, birch, mulberry and hackberry limbs.

“If people want to contact me and find out if their recently cut or fallen branches will work for our animals, the more the better,” Deever said. “The nutrition department does a quality control with every piece of material we feed our animals, as well. We pick at each leaf and peel the bark to make sure it’s okay.”

She said this process is similar to how the animals themselves dissect their food, as giraffes have a mouth structure that makes plucking and eating leaves a natural occurrence, while apes like gorillas meticulously pick leaves like an art form.

The best pieces to donate are those that are very healthy, with non-crispy leaves and pliable bark, which are best during spring and fall. Deever even suggested that if people are trimming their trees for the changing seasons to consider donating their leftover materials to the zoo.

“It’s so cool that people get so excited about donating these items,” Deever said. “They really believe they’re going to a good cause, and if something is going to end up in a landfill, we might as well save it to feed our animals.”

Most Omahans don’t see their backyard garden as something that can sustain a giraffe or elephant, but zookeeper Josh Shandera uses such resources as part of his day-to-day job.

“Some days, we have almost entire trees that we have to hang up for these animals,” Shandera said. “We climb up on ladders and make sure they’re at a place the giraffes can reach.”

Other sustainable methods of animal care and conservation happen every single day at Omaha’s zoo. For instance, Deever said the zoo will use its own lagoon water to help irrigate its grounds and plants. This alone saved about 11,000 gallons of water within the facility.

“With sustainability, we try to do that in all we do,” Deever said. “Of course there are ways to improve, but if the community also wants to get involved, it’s a win-win.”

And from the looks of it, the giraffes felt pretty victorious, too.

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