There are a lot of different species of animals at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and with so many different types of animals to care for, it should come as no surprise that there are a number of different diets to accommodate. As we were taught in elementary school science class: carnivores only eat meat, herbivores eat only plants, fruits and vegetables, while omnivores eat both.
Looking specifically at herbivores, there are two types. Grazers munch on food at ground level such as grass and hay, while browsers look higher to trees and shrubs for their food. The leaves, twigs and bark that make up the majority of a browser’s diet are commonly referred to as “browse.”
Many of the Zoo’s larger animals like giraffe, elephants and rhinos are browsers, and big animals mean big appetites. So how does the Zoo get enough browse to feed these animals each and every day?
The short answer? They find it and they grow it.
The Zoo’s horticulture team is known for its beautiful flower beds and plant displays that you can see all around the Zoo, but they are also a key factor in the success of the browse program at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. What many people don’t realize when they’re walking through the Zoo is that they are surrounded by potential food for the animals.
“Some of the things we plant around the Zoo can also be used as browse for the animals when we are done with them, even the decorative flower beds” says Leigh Anne Lomax, Manager of Horticulture at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. “We try to be conscientious toward what can later be used to feed the animals whenever we can.”
Plants like banana and bamboo are commonly used in the large displays all around the Zoo because so many of the animals can later enjoy them as a meal. Unused areas like the land surrounding the hay barn and behind the rhino barn are used to plant browse as well.
“Any empty space we find on Zoo grounds, we plant browse,” says Lomax.
In addition to their strategic planting and growing, the horticulture team searches for browse outside of the Zoo’s walls.
Owned by Cleveland Metroparks, the Zoo works with park managers and the Natural Resources division at numerous other Metroparks locations to collect browse from all across Northeast Ohio.
“Park managers will contact us when they think they have something we can use, and some are nice enough to let us harvest responsibly in select areas,” says Lomax. “A lot of times the park managers are getting rid of an invasive plant species on their property that we can actually use for the animals.”
How does the Zoo’s horticulture team know what to look for? Working with the veterinary and science departments at the Zoo, horticulturists are trained to identify what browse can be safely fed to the animals and what browse cannot. Research from the science department and recommendations from the veterinary team helps the horticulturists search for the proper type of browse. Additionally, they are constantly speaking to other zoo horticulturists and animal care staff around the country.
The most common types of browse found in the area are crab apple, willow, pear, oak and river birch, plant species that you could easily find in your backyard!
The horticulture team brings in an average of two truckloads of browse a day from outside the Zoo’s walls. From that point, the available browse is broken down on a needed basis.
“The keepers submit a request for how much browse they would like to have for their animals and we divvy it up from there with how much we actually have for that day,” says Dr. Elena Less, Associate Animal Curator and a member of the Zoo’s browse committee.
To no one’s surprise, the elephants receive the majority of browse brought into the Zoo. “Usually the elephants will receive one full truckload a day while the rest of the browse is split up among the rest of the animals,” says Less.
A lot of planning, coordination and effort goes into the browse program at the Zoo. This is because supplying fresh browse to the animals on a daily basis greatly impacts their overall health and wellness in a positive way.
A lot of planning, coordination and effort goes into the browse program at the Zoo
In the wild, herbivorous animals have evolved to survive off whatever is available to them. Oftentimes, that is fibrous material like leaves, branches and even the bark off a tree. Their digestive systems are built to maintain a fiber dense diet similar to what would be available to them in the wild.
Unfortunately, zoos are not able to supply the same amount of fresh browse that would be readily available in the wild. This is due to location, differing climates and ultimately resources available. For example, in Cleveland there is a lack of green leafy browse available in the winter, and even though some animals will eat the bark off dormant plants, keepers have to supplement different types of food to the animals.
“Our keepers will supplement the fresh browse with pelleted, carbohydrate-filled foods to make sure the animal is getting the right amount of food it needs,” says Dr. Pam Dennis, Epidemiologist, at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, “When there is a lack of fresh browse available, pelleted foods are needed to supplement diets. The more supplementation that occurs, the further away the animal’s diet is getting from what it needs and is built for.”
This is what makes the browse program so important for the animals. Supplying as much fresh, fiber-dense food as possible is extremely beneficial to the animal’s health.
“Just like in humans, a high-sugar, high-carb diet can lead to a number of different diseases and health complications,” says Dennis, “We are trying to prevent that in our animals by implementing fresh browse on a regular basis.”
Dennis has been studying the effects of browse in animal diets during her time at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. Recently, she has been conducting a study on the effects of an all-browse diet in the female rhinos at the Zoo. Her work is very beneficial in helping the Zoo provide the highest level of care to its animals.
“We could always use more browse to give to the animals. However, the browse that we do provide is making a positive impact on their overall health,” says Dennis.
In addition to increasing overall health, the browse program reinforces positive foraging behaviors among herbivores. In the wild, these animals spend more time with their food, finding it, separating it and enjoying it.
The addition of fresh browse to Zoo animal’s diet increases their eating time and provides a form of environmental enrichment. Pelleted-foods are consumed quickly and provide no form of enrichment to the animal.
Developing over time, the browse program officially rolled out in 2002 and has served as another way for the Zoo to provide the best standard of care for the animals.
“It’s a direct way that we can impact the health and wellness of the animals, and we hope to continue to find ways to supply even more browse in the future” says Lomax.