Zoo tells city: Please feed the animals

Gene J. Puskar/AP

The Reid Park Zoo in Tucson finds itself in a unique situation: it has five new elephants — but the facility does not have enough leafy food to keep the large animals happy. That's not to say they don't have enough to eat; it's just that there's not enough variety.

"What we're looking for... I think the word 'snacks' came up," says zoo curator Jim Schnormeier.

The zoo realized it needed help to keep the residents of its new Expedition Tanzania habitat happy, Schnormeier tells All Things Considered co-host Audie Cornish. So the zoo reached out to the residents of Tucson for a hand.

The curator wanted to give the elephants something they could really get into eating — and some of the yard trimmings from Tucson's residents were seen as the perfect solution. In zoology, such leafy trimmings are termed "browse."

And that's how the zoo's website came to post a note asking for trimmings, under the headline "We Need Browse!" The freshly cut plants often resemble the animals' natural diet, and occupy the animals' time, because the limbs and leaves take more effort to eat.

"If they have a large limb, that they can go ahead and pull the leaves off of, then they'll work on pulling the bark off, and then they'll actually chew on the log, or the limb itself," Schnormeier says. "So, it's got several levels that can be used."

Before the food donation is accepted, zoo officials talk with the donors to ensure it hasn't been exposed to chemical sprays, or high pollution.

The list of acceptable donations includes 27 plants, such as African sumac, bamboo, ficus, cottonwood, mesquite, willow, pepper tree, and other varieties.

Still, Schnormeier stresses that the zoo hasn't run into a desperate situation, where the elephants might face starvation. Instead, he says, the plants will "help fight some boredom."

"Just for the fact that we have just added more elephants, our stock and our suppliers are not as great as they've been in the past," he says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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