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We’ve all seen utility workers cutting down limbs along the side of the road. But what you probably didn’t realize was, those workers may have been doing more than just clearing the way for power lines: There’s a good chance they were also helping animals at the St. Louis Zoo.
As part of a joint program with the Zoo, Ameren Missouri collects some of its tree trimmings to help ensure the animals get enough “browse,” or leafy tree branches.
“Browse is really important for the animals because it’s an important fiber source for animals that eat tree leaves and don’t necessarily eat grass,” explained Deb Schmidt, Animal Nutritionist for the St. Louis Zoo. “It’s a different shape of fiber, different form and they benefit from it more so that they would eating hay.”
Prior to this program, Ameren Missouri would put the browse through chippers that would grind it up into mulch and take it to landfills. Now, they take the branches as they fall on the ground, put them into the back of the truck, and deliver them to the Zoo.
The Zoo takes five different species of tree that the animals particularly like and that provide the most nutritional value to them: mulberry, ash, hackberry, willow, and elm. This works out, since those are the species that Ameren encounters most often in their job and can bring in the largest quantities.
“Each of the animal areas, they tend to like all five of the types,” said Amanda Briegender, St. Louis Zoo Keeper. “They really tend to like willow for some reason, so we have to make sure everybody gets willow when we get willow in.”
The browse program is in its second year. And everything from grizzly bears to gorillas to giraffes benefit from it. But that means they need a lot of leafy branches. Areas like the elephants, for example, will sometimes get a whole truckload because they’re such large animals and eat so much.
Fortunately, Ameren is able to deliver between one and two tons a week during the warmer months. That’s enough to feed the animals with fresh browse in the summer, as well as fill about 300 large plastic totes that are then stored in a big freezer at the zoo to help feed the animals with fresh branches during the winter.
“In the winter they aren’t going to see as much of it, but they still do like to strip the bark off the branches and they consume the leaves really readily,” said Schmidt. “The leaves aren’t mush, like you would think that they would be. They’re actually a little bit thin, feel like leather.”
The program was first initiated by keepers at the zoo. And so far, it’s been a huge hit with them, workers at Ameren Missouri, the animals, and zoo visitors.