When it comes to enjoying fresh fruits and vegetables, what could be better than being able to pluck a ripe tomato or crisp head of lettuce out of your very own garden? For Woodland Park Zoo’s gorilla troops, fresh-off-the-vine produce is just that accessible. In the winter they may be dining on evergreen elaeagnus leaves, and in the summer they may be stuffing themselves with grape leaves and tender vines.
A wide variety of animals at the zoo enjoy fresh produce from the zoo’s browse program, which provides fresh leaves, stems and flowers for gorillas, red pandas, colobus monkeys, orangutans, elephants, tree kangaroos and many others. You and I use the term “browse” to mean sampling and exploring—like browsing the shelves of a bookstore in search of something appealing. But the term also refers to the plant materials eaten by browsers—that is, herbivores or plant-eaters that eat the leaves, stems and flowers right off the tree or bush instead of grazing on the ground.
The zoo’s supply of fresh browse comes from three sources. Some plants are grown right in the exhibit, where the animals can nibble on them whenever they want, like when there are fresh shoots on a branch, or delectable flowers are in bloom. The regular pruning and maintenance that our hardworking horticulture crew conducts is another major source of browse, and a few of the desired plants are also grown in small gardens scattered around zoo grounds.
Many Northwest native plants are on the list of approved browse, from alder and birch to Douglas fir and cotoneaster. And if you’ve ever participated in one of the twice-daily giraffe feeding experiences during the summer months, you’ve likely seen the zoo’s giraffes wrapping their tongues around fresh branches of maple or willow to strip off the leaves.
Along with the nutritional benefits, browse provides animals with opportunities to experience different smells, textures and tastes. It's all part of our ongoing effort to feed our animals the highest quality and most nutritious food while shrinking our carbon footprint by reducing our “food miles,” or the distance that food needs to travel.
Nibbling on fern fronds or munching the bark from a birch may not appeal to you, but whatever you do plant on your porch, garden or P-patch plot this summer, enjoy!
Photos by Ryan Hawk and Dennis Conner/Woodland Park Zoo.