Tucson Zoo Crowdsources To Feed Elephants

Leafy greens aren't easy to come by in the desert, and when the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson welcomed five new elephants, they quickly realized they would need help locating branches for the pachyderms to snack on. So, they put out an open call to area residents. They asked for African sumac, mesquite, mimosa and fig leaves, among other plants. Audie Cornish talks with the zoo's general curator about his crowd-sourcing for elephant snacks.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In the digital age, it seems just about anything can be crowdsourced, everything from restaurant reviews to building a bigger, better operating system. Well, you can add to that list feeding the elephants.

The Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Arizona, opened a new habitat last month. Expedition Tanzania is now home to five elephants, but the zoo has quickly run low on pachyderm snacks. So zoo officials put out a call to Tucson area residents asking for their leafy yard trimmings.

Zoo curator Jim Schnormeier joins us now to talk more about it. Hi there, Jim.

JIM SCHNORMEIER: Hi.

CORNISH: So I always thought it was a cardinal rule at any zoo not to feed the animals. Do not feed the animals, right? So tell me a little bit about these elephants and why you need the community to help pitch in.

SCHNORMEIER: Well, our elephants - and, in fact, all our animals - have a very strict and nutritiously adequate diet for them. What we're looking for - and I think the word snacks came up - and what we want is to have something nutritionally viable, but we also want to have something that occupies the animal so they can use their natural abilities to work on it.

And a good example of that would be a giraffe has a very long tongue, a prehensile tongue, and it uses that tongue to strip the leaves off a tree. So, if we're giving a giraffe a large branch with a lot of leaves, it's not only nutritional for them, but it also occupies them and allows them to do what they do naturally out in the wild.

CORNISH: And, in this case, you're talking about elephants, actually. Five new elephants. So what exactly...

SCHNORMEIER: And an elephant...

CORNISH: ...do they eat?

SCHNORMEIER: And elephants, it's the same thing. If they have a large limb that they can go ahead and strip 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. So it's got several levels that can be used.

CORNISH: Now, describe the list of things that you have that you're looking for to feed these elephants.

SCHNORMEIER: I have a list of 27 and these items are chosen by the zoo staff to make sure we are feeding our animals the safest product that we can find in that aspect. So, when somebody calls, we ask them what the plant is, then we go ahead and ask them some further things. Is it, you know - has there been any chemical spraying to it or is there some pollution areas that the tree may be involved with growing in? And then, once we're clear with that, we have a team that looks at the vegetation very closely to make sure again it is what they say it is and that, to our knowledge, there's no issues with it.

CORNISH: And so you talked a little bit about spraying and I want to ask you, also, about - you know, last summer, the zoo's only male giraffe dying after being fed oleander leaves. So is that part of this process, as well? Figuring out the right plant is getting to the right animal?

SCHNORMEIER: Absolutely. The list of plants has been put together very carefully to make sure we don't have any toxicity to it or some other issues that we think could be harmful to the animal.

CORNISH: Is this a long term solution? I mean, you are opening this new expedition and you do have these additional animals. How are you going to deal with this in the future?

SCHNORMEIER: Again, this is an enrichment product to help fight some boredom and stuff. It's - so, again, it's not...

CORNISH: But was it an unforeseen shortage? I mean, did you sort of budget for the fact...

SCHNORMEIER: You know - no. It...

CORNISH: ...that you - you know, would have more animals?

SCHNORMEIER: No. You know, our (unintelligible) is used for many of our different species here at the zoo. It's one that we're always calling out for and, sometimes, we get a lot of it or sometimes we don't get any of it at all. And just with the fact that we have now added more elephants, our stock and our suppliers are not as great as they were in the past.

CORNISH: Well, Jim Schnormeier, thanks so much for talking with us.

SCHNORMEIER: All righty.

CORNISH: And good luck hunting down the rest of those snacks.

SCHNORMEIER: We'll find them.

CORNISH: That's zoo curator Jim Schnormeier of the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Arizona.

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