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Leafy branches from trimmed trees around electrical lines provide snacks for St. Louis Zoo animals

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As Ameren Missouri crews and contractors move down the area’s power lines, trimming trees, they think of the animals at the St. Louis Zoo.

The crews know how to identify willow, ash, mulberry, hackberry and elm — the animals' tastiest favorites. So the workers leave the trees be and free from the wood chipper until they come back to cut them down. The leafy branches — known as “browse” — then get delivered to the zoo weekly for the animals to enjoy, supplementing their usual diets.

The effort takes coordination, and the zoo and Ameren have been working together for six years to provide browse for the animals, gathering about 32 tons during the last full year of the program.

Zoo staff cut edible branches from trees on their own grounds, and some areas, such as the new Primate Canopy Trails, have special browse gardens. This past spring, Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum in St. Louis worked with the zoo to plant edible trees in special forage plots, which will eventually provide more fresh browse for the animals.

“Everybody gets a little bit of personal value out of it,” says Dan Kennedy, vegetation supervisor for Ameren Missouri. “It’s not a lot of extra work.” He knows that the animals love willow in particular.

“The other ones, they’re more frequent. But the willow, we all have a little special eye out for that.”

The zoo gets a browse delivery once a week, sometimes up to three truckloads, and it’s up to zoo animal nutrition keeper Dan Skoff to coordinate the delivery. After dumping the pile behind the scenes near the zoo’s maintenance building and greenhouses, a horticulturist gives it a once-over to make sure a toxic variety didn’t get mixed in by mistake.

On delivery days, Skoff sends an email to members of the zoo’s “browse team,” keepers and workers from different departments who volunteer to take time away from their normal jobs to sort and cut the browse. They keep some fresh, but they cut up other branches in pieces to freeze during the colder months.

The zoo’s only expense was buying the 427 plastic totes that stack browse in a room-size freezer in the zoo’s nutrition center, adjacent to shelves that hold bins of small, medium and large rats, a leg of lamb for the lions and a frozen pig for the anaconda.

“They won’t bite,” quips Skoff of the frozen animals during a tour of the freezer. “They might scratch a little.”

Sometimes companies doing team-building workshops bring in workers to cut the browse alongside the zoo staff. “It’s good to see all of us come up to get that all packed up,” he says. “We’re really dedicated to the animals here. We’re really indebted to (Ameren) to help provide them healthy diets.”

One recent afternoon, Rivers Edge keepers Tori Mattingly and Madi Culbertson helped cut and sort the browse along with several others from different parts of the zoo. “This is very clean compared to what we normally do,” Culbertson jokes.

The pair had spent the morning cleaning the indoor and outdoor habitats of the elephant barn. When they put out the browse in piles, the elephants head straight to it, they say.

“A lot of times, they like to start swinging it around,” Mattingly says. “One of the elephants, Rani, I see her a lot of times putting it on top of her head. She wears it like a flower crown. She really likes browse.”

The elephants stand around the pile of browse to socialize and eat, and sometimes the keepers put the browse up high, to simulate the way elephants find browse in the wild.

One recent morning, a pair of keepers walked into the outdoor gorilla habitat with bins of hay, melon, lettuce and browse, placing the food on the ground, in stumps, and up on hammocks for gorillas to find, like a breakfast Easter egg hunt. The keepers went inside, then the gorillas wandered outside.

One gorilla used a stick to pick at food left in the stump, and another gorilla gathered browse from the ground. He hugged it to his chest like a scepter, then perched with it at the top of the log, watching the activity below.

Browse for zoo animals

A gorilla feeds on lettuce treats and browse put out by the zookeepers, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. Browse is leafy branches from trees. The zoo and Ameren have a partnership wherein Ameren identifies and trims tree species on their normal maintenance routine, and instead of mulching it, delivers it to the zoo to feed to the animals that benefit from eating browse. Photo by Hillary Levin, hlevin@post-dispatch.com

“Look, it’s a gorilla! And he took all his trees up there!” a mom pushing a stroller pointed out to her toddler son.

Over by the giraffes, who share space with ostriches and lesser kudus, keepers placed browse in shorter feeders and in a plastic “browse barrel,” essentially a container with holes, which they lower and raise for giraffes to reach. After the keepers left, the animals strolled straight for their breakfast.

The giraffes stretched high and ate, and a younger lesser kudu stood at the shorter feeder, their tails wagging.

Browse for zoo animals

River's Edge zookeepers Madi Culbertson, left, and Tori Mattingly cut down and sort into storage bins browse just delivered to the zoo from Ameren's tree trimmers.

Photo by Hillary Levin, hlevin@post-dispatch.com

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