It’s a peculiar sight, watching an 18-inch, purple, prehensile tongue dart from the mouth of a giraffe and deftly snatch leaves and bark from the branch of maple tree.
But for Sam, one of the giraffes at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, it’s a free lunch, courtesy of OPPD’s Forestry team.
OPPD Forestry’s contract partners with Asplundh haul tree trimmings to the zoo, often moving three loads a day in a huge truck called a clam. At 70 cubic yards per load, this browse, as it’s known, is a smorgasbord of saplings and a buffet of branches for zoo animals, including giraffes, elephants and apes.
This “win-win” relationship started last autumn when Danny Morris, the zoo’s chief operating officer at the time, reached out to Christene Bywater, OPPD’s account executive responsible for that relationship. Bywater joined Chris Vrtiska, a supervisor with Transmission & Distribution, for a visit to the zoo and, from there, the idea rapidly took shape.
Now, the zoo provides a veterinarian-approved browse list and Utility Forester Andy Clark helps guide the separation of tree species, carefully excluding ones that could potentially be unhealthy for the animals.
“We give them anything from one-inch branches all the way up to tree trunks,” said Clark. “It’s a big efficiency win for us, since our crews can quickly turn around and get back to work.”
Roni McClellen, the zoo’s browse coordinator, explained that for a northern zoo, the browse makes a great year-round supplement to the animals’ diets.
And it’s great for OPPD, as well.
Trimmings from more than 70,000 trees each year all need to find their way to dropoff sites, often meaning long trips to area landscapers.
“This really opened our eyes to new locations,” said Lon Nutter, a supervisor with Asplundh. “We sometimes have to drive an hour to unload, so with easy interstate and highway access, the zoo is a full-time destination that works really well for us.”
Elephants strip down the trunks, while giraffes devour the leaves and bark from branches. McClellen explained that it’s called browse because these herbivores would browse and eat the material directly from trees in the wild, similar to the way a grazing animal like a zebra grazes for grass.
She said in the past, the zoo gave the animals clippings from trees located at the zoo, but the addition of browse from OPPD gives them much more to feed the animals.
“It’s a very welcome bonus.”