How some zoos are using leftover Christmas trees to enrich their elephants' lives.
Every so often, as I'm driving out in the country, I pass one of those Christmas tree farms.
You know, the ones just off the side of the road, their little bushy pines set up in rows like children lining up for school?
But it's now more than two weeks after Christmas, which, unless you're really looking for a bargain, probably means that any trees left over aren't going to be gracing anyone's living room any time soon.
But that doesn't mean they're not still useful.
Some trees get a second chance at greatness, not as Christmas trees, but as a winter treat for elephants.
Elephants will totally eat them.
Elephants don't usually munch on pine trees or other conifers, but they seem to like them just the same. And actually pine needles are really high in vitamin C, so they're kind of like health food too.
And it's not just elephants who'll eat them. Giraffes, deer, and other plant eaters also like a little nibble.
Plus, these trees have many other uses too!
It can be an elephant back-scratcher...
A polar bear pool toy...
Or a pillow for a midafternoon catnap.
A lot of different animals might like a tree, including the ones at a zoo near you.
Some zoos will even take trees donated from private homes, but you might want to check before traipsing down to your local zoo. Searching their website is a great start to find out what guidelines they suggest.
Many commercial Christmas trees are treated with chemicals these days, so zoos have to be careful where they get their trees from.
This kind of treat is called enrichment.
When properly maintained and managed, zoos can help animals in a lot of ways, including giving homes to animals and species that wouldn't survive in the wild. And animals in zoos can serve as ambassadors of their species — helping to inspire people to learn more about conservation.
By giving animals enriching toys, foods, and events, zoos keep the animals active and interested in their environments.
Enrichment is a really important part of modern zoos and is required by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums before they'll give their stamp of approval. AZA accreditation is very rigorous and means that the zoo really understands how to do right by their animals.
The different toys or tasks offered to the animals are based on things they would encounter or do out in the wild. Lions can listen to the sound of zebras. Sea otters, who have to search for and puzzle out how to eat hard-shelled animals like clams, can be given brainteasers. And walruses, who are surprisingly musical animals, can learn to whistle.
Combining that with recycling? It's a match made in zoo heaven.
The Earth only has so much to go around — when we can find clever ways to reuse what we have, we're all enriched for it.
Watch Totally Flabbergasted's 2014 video of elephants eating Christmas trees in the Berlin Zoo below.