Did you know gorillas at the Philadelphia Zoo are fed banana leaves, not bananas?
This is according to Barbara Toddes, who has been with the zoo for 33 years, and as the nutrition program director, oversees the feeding of the zoo’s 330 different species of animals. She said the gorillas are actually rather picky eaters.
“They are herbivores, they eat a lot of vegetation,” Toddes said. “About 85 percent of their wild diet is fiber, so it’s really important to have a high fiber diet for them. Our apes are not designed like humans. They have a colon that is three to five times the size of ours.”
The zoo has seven gorillas who eat more than 1,800 kilograms of food — that’s more than 4,000 pounds — per year. This August, the zoo and PECO formed a new collaboration called the Philadelphia Zoo Browse Program, through which PECO provides the zoo with weekly deliveries of leaves, twigs and branches, called browse. Asplundh, the tree company contracted with PECO to facilitate the tree cutting and removal, delivers the browse to the zoo.
There are 40 species of animals that have browse put into their diet. Besides primates like the gorillas, other animals — giraffes, gazelles, kangaroos and tortoises — all benefit from browse.
Most of the food preparation takes place at the zoo’s 35-year old commissary, located on its West Philly grounds. The department’s budget is a little over half a million dollars, for just the food alone.
The zoo receives most of its plants and leaves to feed its other herbivores from its own browse farm, the Variety Club, as well as the Florida-based farm Koala Browse.
Like the gorillas, the giraffes can be picky at times, sometimes growing tired of the acacia plant that they are fed. The grounds department is incredibly helpful, Toddes said. Anytime the department cuts an appropriate type of plant, they’ll bring it to Toddes and her crew. This includes plants out of the zoo’s green house, like banana leaves. Where the plants come from, for all animals, is important.
“PECO provides us with a tremendous volume of mulberry, for the most part,” Toddes said. “Some willow every now and then, but mostly mulberry, and when we started this relationship with them it was very specific. We were able to tell them what species we were interested in and where it would be appropriate to cut those species from to avoid contaminants and how to handle the browse when they are bringing it to us.”
This summer the zoo provided their gorilla troop (five adults and two babies) with five kilograms of mixed-species browse every day. The delivery by PECO made that possible, but the zoo added to that browse collected from the zoo grounds, their farm in Fairmount and the Variety Club. The amount PECO shares each week varies but will usually range from two to five kilograms.
The giraffes alone receive six kilograms of browse daily during the summer. That amount will change in the winter to just one kilogram a day, as the zoo adds to the fresh browse — they ship in fresh from Florida — with frozen browse and alfalfa hay through the winter.
The partnership benefits PECO, too. Some of what is cut down for the zoo would otherwise be turned into mulch.
“We’re looking forward to continuing our longstanding partnership with Philadelphia Zoo, one of the area’s foremost conservation organizations, through our new Browse Program,” Craig Adams, president and CEO of PECO, said when the program was announced. “When trees and branches come in contact with overhead power lines, they can cause extended outages. Now, we are not only providing a benefit to our customers, we are also creating a positive impact for the animals at one of the region’s most premier attractions.”
The zoo does offer browse year round and in the summer will include flowers and seasonal produce in their animal’s diets.
“When items are not available we fill with other species appropriate foods,” Toddes said. “It is a fluid program and very much mimics what animals normally do for themselves in the wild.”