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Farm to Paw: Feasting green with a sustainable Commissary

Posted by Barbara Segal, Intern

Grizzly bear with a salmon treat. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, Woodland Park Zoo.
Have you ever seen our bears daintily eat their salmon? Or watched as our hungry hippos chomp a melon? How about watching our warty pigs nibble on a wreath of roses? Every day at our zoo animals from snails to rhinos feast on the tasty and nutritious meals provided by their dedicated keepers. Meeting the snack needs of over 1,100 animals is no easy task. The powerhouse of this operation is the Commissary, our central food preparation station. And our Commissary staff have been thinking sustainability! The choices we make when sourcing and preparing food for our animals can have echoes in the natural habitats of animals worldwide. Let’s follow the trail of treats to see how they do it.

First, our team is choosy about where the animals’ food comes from. They work hard to get produce, meats and more from sources that are as local as possible. Sourcing locally means fewer fossil fuels are used to get the food to us. In fact, some of the browse for our plant eaters literally comes from right next door! Our neighbors in the Phinney Ridge area donate pesticide-free clippings from their trees and bushes to the zoo for our animals to enjoy.

Rhino enrichment! Photo by Jeremy Dywer-Lindgren, Woodland Park Zoo.

Of course, the over 300 species we have at our zoo have lots of different food needs, so we have to look a bit further than our neighbor’s gardens. We’re lucky to have great local suppliers like Charlie’s Produce and Sound Sustainable Farms. They help us get produce in season, which is another great way to help the environment. When we use fruits and veggies that want to grow right here and now, we aren’t shipping them from a distance, or relying on hot houses that use a lot of electricity. Both of our providers give us organic produce as much as possible, which means our choices help prevent pesticides and artificial fertilizers from entering the environment. We know pollinators and animals relying on water sources around farms thank us!

Fresh! Photo by Ashley Fung, Woodland Park Zoo
Working with a small local company also lets us get exactly what our animals want. For example, we let Sound Sustainable Farms know that our animals love roots and leaves that human consumers usually don’t eat. Less of the plants are wasted, and our animals and keepers love it! Sound Sustainable Farms even partners with our zoo and Cedar Grove compost to take it full circle. Our animals love the produce, and what they don’t use, plus cuttings from our gardening team, go to Cedar Grove for composting. Cedar Grove’s compost then nourishes the plants at Sound Sustainable Farm that will be food for our animals. Round and round and round it goes!

Yola and a snack. Photo by Jeremy Dywer-Lindgren, Woodland Park Zoo.
Even when plants get a little old, we can sometimes make great use of them! When our Rose Garden blooms start to fade, our gardeners trim them off and bring them to the Commissary. Then they go out to animals who enjoy them as a treat, especially our goats, gorillas, and many primates. To preserve them even further, sometimes the roses clippings are turned into rose-scicles—frozen treats to keep our animals cool on hot summer days. Over 70 of these snacks will go out to our animals in 2-3 days! That’s a lot of rose-scicles. Roses aren’t the only plants that are still welcome when they fade. If our bananas get a bit brown, our team transforms them into a treat by adding condensed milk and coconut shred. Then we sneak in vitamins and give the delicious combination to our eager lemurs.

Star-shaped rose-cicles!  Photo by Ashley Fung, Woodland Park Zoo
Not all our animals can live by plants alone, though. Some animals just can’t do veganism. Our carnivores, from tigers to tarantulas, need meat. Some of these are locally sourced, too. Our team will sometimes even get a whole locally-sourced carcass to break up for treats for different animals. And don’t worry, our carnivores get their own version of the delightful rose-scicles. Bloodscicles!
Believe it or not, finding great local sources for our animals’ food is just a start. When it arrives, we get it out to the animals as soon as we can, but it takes a while to get everything ready for over a thousand animals. So in the meantime, we keep some of it on ice. Right now we are excited to be upgrading our freezer to make storage more energy-efficient. Everything we can do to reduce energy use helps us do our part to slow climate change. In fact, the whole Commissary building is doing its part. The roof is covered with solar panels that provide most of the energy needed for the building—up to 75%!

 Photo of the  zoo commissary by Barbara Segal, Woodland Park Zoo
Once the food’s all here, our team goes to work. Our animal keepers provide detailed information about what animals need, so the exact right combinations and amounts can get to our animals. Careful planning means very little food gets wasted—just like food planning at your house. Sometimes keepers even order special requests for holidays to surprise the animals. Our creative Commissary staff loves to make it happen, delighting our residents and guests.

Photo by Ashley Fung, Woodland Park Zoo
Prepared meals for animals then go into carefully labeled totes. Each animal or group of animals gets its own tote, which gets delivered daily to the animal keepers in each area of the zoo. The animals are fed, the totes come back to the Commissary to be reused. Reusing sturdy containers instead of sending out single-use packaging makes a huge difference in how much waste our zoo produces. Hmm.... seems like something we can all do when we pack our lunches and snacks. Deliciously green!

Photo by Ashley Fung, Woodland Park Zoo
When the last meal is served for the day and the animals are licking their lips, our staff still have one more job to do to keep waste down. When being transported from their source to the zoo, the fruits, veggies, and meats have to come in some kind of container and packaging. We do our best to recycle or reuse as much of it as possible. A lot of produce comes in cardboard boxes, which we recycle. Any styrofoam that came with food or other supplies get carefully sorted to be taken to Styro Recycle in Kent in South King County. Good news—they are open to the public and you can bring your styrofoam there to recycle, too!

 Photo by Ashley Fung, Woodland Park Zoo
Sometimes we can take packing products and repurpose them on zoo grounds. For example, our Education Center uses packing peanuts for crafts and projects in camps. Some of the animal feed comes in bags made out of a woven plastic mesh. We have exciting plans to take the bags and make reusable shopping bags out of them. Then our team can help others take the next step in reducing and reusing.

Wow, what would we do without our Commissary team!? They do so much to keep our animals healthy and happy, while making a difference on our impact on wildlife, too. They show us all how to choose local, seasonal and organic food, and they are role models in reusing and recycling. All that talk about fresh food is enough to make somebody hungry! Time for a snack...

 Lemur luncheon. Photo by Dennis Dow, Woodland Park Zoo