New app helping Woodland Park Zoo find greenery for its animals

SEATTLE — We use computers and phone apps every day to check up on our friends, play games and even pay bills.

A locally created app is now used to help get fresh, local greenery to animals at Woodland Park Zoo.

KIRO 7 met the zoo curator who has been instrumental getting the custom-made technology off the ground.

At the 91-acre zoo, about 1% is devoted to what collection manager Erin Sullivan calls “browse.”

“There’s a handful of plants and trees that are edible and consumable by our animals. And so, in order to be able to give them the opportunity to have fresh leaves and trees and branches and bark to eat, we grow plants on grounds that we can harvest from and feed out to the animals here at the zoo,” said Sullivan.

The greenery not only provides food, but also enrichment for the animals.

“It’s just something to keep them busy and occupied. It’s enrichment. Stripping the bark is really, really fun,” said Sullivan.

In spring, we see budding plants and leaves, but by winter, they’re gone.

“Then, in fall it gets a little bit harder, and in winter, it’s even harder. And so, (it’s good) if we can take advantage of these trimmings. We’re even looking into silage to be able to put some of these branches and trees, basically canning them, so that our summer browse is available in winter for the animals, which will also be super-exciting,” said Sullivan.

That stockpile is where a new, custom app comes in, courtesy of Seattle City Light.

The animals need greenery and the city needs to trim trees.

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“What they did is they looked at all the different lines that the tree crews go when working for Seattle City Light,” said Sullivan.

City Light mapped out those lines, and all the trees and plants around them.

“That will make the most sense for us to work on with City Light when they’re cutting those trees,” said Sullivan.

So zoo staff know exactly what’s being cut, where to pick it up and which animals they can give it to.

“So, it was an amazing amount of work that they did for us that we weren’t expecting that made our life, as far as figuring out where to start working with them, so much easier. We’re really excited to know where that’s going to go in the future because we can see it growing and developing into a much bigger app,” said Sullivan.

Seattle Department of Transportation road crews are also involved in the effort.

“They’re delivering stuff to us, too. And it’s really exciting, and I think rewarding for everybody when we’re able to support SDOT and Seattle City Light doing their jobs, but then we get to take those tree trimmings and give them to the rhinos,” said Sullivan.

Sullivan said the zoo has a few other partners, too.

“We’ve partnered up with Oxbow Farms, even some local nurseries have donated Christmas trees to us as well,” said Sullivan. “It’s been super-fun talking to people about browse.”

But it’s not as simple as going out to the front year and cutting back bushes. There’s a lot of research behind getting the plants.

“We have a horticulture department here who knows what grows well on zoo grounds and what will do well in our climate, then we also talked to other programs, other taxon advisory groups, other zoos to find out other plants that people have fed to their animals, and then it goes to our vet department,” said Sullivan.

“And they look through all of the research that we provide with them to see if there’s anything that’s going to be harmful for the animals. And once it’s gone through every single part of those checklists and that whole process, then we know it’s been a browse-approved plant that goes on a very special list that we can grow here and also collect from some of the local neighborhoods as well,” she said.

“So where would you like to see this app go with Seattle City Light?” KIRO 7 asked Sullivan.

“I’d love to see this partnership grow and develop, see the app grow and develop, and to really help us focus on where best to collect these plants in Seattle. And I’d love for others to have this be used as a model for other zoos of how they can partner with their local utilities to be able to take advantage of the browse there.”

Sullivan said the partnerships are also key because of a lack of space to grow browse.

“You can tell with our browse gardens here and on-grounds that we don’t have a lot of space. We have so much access to so much more browse by doing these partnerships with Seattle City Light and SDOT and things like that,” said Sullivan.

“It just makes our browse garden grow beyond Woodland Park Zoo, and it also kind of sets the pace or sets the trend for other zoos to get involved completely. It’s a really great model for others to use, and we hope that they can see our app and see some of the work we’re doing and be excited by it and do the same,” she said.