Fresno Chaffee Zoo turns elephant poo into a fundraising coup

The Fresno BeeMay 9, 2014 

Call it caca for a cause. A fecal fundraiser.

Whatever term you prefer, Zoo Poo -- composted elephant manure -- is for sale at Gazebo Gardens Nursery, part of a partnership with the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. The doodie do-gooders are raising money to protect elephants in Africa, while benefiting backyard gardeners and keeping thousands of pounds of elephant excrement out of landfills.

The poo has been composting in a corner of the Van Ness Boulevard nursery for three months, breaking down until it transforms into a soil amendment that resembles a pile of dirt. It's for sale in $5, one-quart novelty packages, enough for one tomato plant. Or in half-cubic yards -- the size of about three garbage cans. For $100, that can be loaded into pickups.

"It just smells like soil. Nothing poopy about it all," says Gazebo Gardens owner Scott Miller as he plunges his hands into the pile of compost.

Chaffee Zoo is following the lead of other zoos that have decided not to let animal waste go to waste.

Once expenses are covered, the money goes to the Tarangire Elephant Project in Tanzania. The program tracks more than 1,000 elephants and creates migration corridors where elephants can avoid run-ins with humans. It's important work on a continent where 96 elephants a day are killed, says zoo director Scott Barton.

Chaffee Zoo has some experience when it comes to doing something with its doo doo. In 2010 the zoo started composting animal droppings for its own landscaping. But the zoo didn't have the marketing power to do more with it, nor the room to compost much of it, Barton says. Most of it ended up in landfills.

So when Miller agreed to take on the role of manure man and coordinate weekly pick-ups, the zoo jumped on the opportunity.

The Zoo Poo also includes manure from other herbivores, including zebras, giraffes and warthogs. But since the zoo's two 8,000-pound Asian elephants produce so much waste, their dung makes up the bulk of the compost.

Kara and Shaunzi, the zoo's two female elephants, produce between 200 and 250 pounds of waste a day, says Amber Talley, lead keeper of elephants and hoof stock. And she would know; she's one of the people who hauls wheelbarrows full of it out of their enclosure.

Elephants eat mostly oat hay, along with the occasional side of bamboo or mulberry trees.

"We'll actually drag out whole trees and they'll eat those," Talley says. "They love those."

The quart-size packages of Zoo Poo are sold in what looks like take-out containers of Chinese food. (The fact that the elephants are Asian was unplanned coincidence, organizers say.)

The compost is completely organic -- no growth hormones or salt from salt licks that you might get in cattle manure, Miller says. Elephant manure is also said to better for plants than steer manure because it has more slow-release nitrogen. And it won't burn plants like chicken manure, with its high nitrogen content.

"Elephant manure is really a worldwide hipster trend," Miller says. "My prediction is that there will be some record-breaking tomatoes this year."

For now, the Zoo Poo is only for sale at Gazebo Gardens and the zoo's gift shop, and will soon be available at Peeve's Public House & Local Market on the Fulton Mall. Organizers hope more retailers will carry it as part of the fundraiser.

Although Gazebo Gardens expects to eventually run out of Zoo Poo, the poopy project has potential. The zoo is scheduled to get more elephants when it debuts its 13-acre, $55.9 million African Adventure exhibit in about 14 months.

It's not clear yet how many of the big animals will end up at Chaffee, but Barton says they're hoping for enough to start a breeding program.

The elephants already at the zoo have no idea so much attention is being paid to what they leave behind. Kara and Shaunzi are the type to avoid their poo, keeper Talley says. They don't step in it.

"They'd probably be like, 'Really? You're taking our poop? Ew.' "

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6431, or @BethanyClough on Twitter.

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