If a small zoo can go through 800 carrots a day, you know that fresh feed for all the animals at a zoo carries a hefty price tag. Even if they do procure all the vegetables and greens at wholesale, imagine how much the monthly grocery bill can be. Hydroponics is proving a solution to reducing the cost of zoo animal feed, and at the same time it’s increasing the nutrient value of their diet.

A few large zoos in the US have grow chambers that produce green fodder for hooved animals in a system much like is used to grow grain grass for cattle in the cold season. It was first experimented with at the San Diego Zoo in 1968, and from what online resources say, they are still using it to provide 500-600 pounds of fresh barley greens for the zebras, antelope, deer and the like each day. These hydroponic fodder chambers are also in use at the Bronx, St. Louis, Phoenix, and Chicago Zoos… but what about the rest of the animals’ diets?

Wild animals are supposed to eat ‘wild’ food – sans chemicals, and well, do you suppose gorillas would find lettuce foraging in their native range? Yes, they eat it. What choice do they have? A hungry creature will eat anything he knows won’t kill him. Lettuce, carrots, apples, and so on seem like they would be a very healthy diet to us humans. However, not only is not a natural food for most of these captive animals, it isn’t extremely fresh translating into nutrient loss, and the high concentrations of foreign minerals can affect their overall health over time. Something that brought  Kevin Frediani at the Paignton Zoo in Devon, UK to seriously consider the multitude of benefits to the stock in addition to lowering the feed bill when Valcent was looking for a new research project to hone their VertiCrop system.

Paignton Zoo grows a lot more fresh hydroponic crops than any other zoo in the world using a highly advanced system. While it’s highly unlikely that a zoo’s on-site hydroponic farm could keep the koala bears in a never ending supply of eucalyptus leaves, they can grow a host of fruits and vegetables year around. Food that is without the high concentration of iron that commercially grown produce contains due to the fertilizer inputs. Iron is not part of any wild animals diet in such high concentrations, and they are finding that long term captivity diets cause this mineral to build up in animals organs, becoming a detriment to their health.

Having the vertical farming installation on the premises since 2008 has done a lot for the Devon zoological park. Being able to harvest and feed the food to the animals in minutes insures that they are getting all the natural sugars, vitamins, and minerals that is sorely lacking in commercial greens and produce. Not to mention it being a lot better tasting, and they can infuse increased vitamins and minerals to certain animals’ food to offset dietary deficiencies without the common chemical alternatives. On top of boosting the quality of the park residents’ diets, Frediani says it has done some serious reduction in the annual feed bill.

Catherine Mortimer, head grower at Paignton gives us a look at what they’re growing and the zoo’s indoor hydroponic farm in the video below. The rotation of the growing bed stacks allows for incredible plant density on a small footprint.

While zoos around the world have no doubt been keeping a keen eye on the success of onsite feed growing in the UK, such an installation may not be feasible for small zoos. This opens a window of opportunity to hydroponic growers in their area, as is the case at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Ohio. The zoo didn’t go looking for a local source of fresh greens, the grower approached them. The result? Squire Valleevue Farm, part of Case Western Reserve University since 1919, delivers hundreds of pounds of endive, dandelion greens, and romaine lettuce to the zoo every week. Now they are planning to plant 20 acres of hay to flesh out the animals’ healthy diet.

There’s a lot more details about the VertiCrop installation and the crop program at the Paignton Zoo HERE.

Tammy Clayton

Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine
Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.
Tammy Clayton