Zoo Poop Keeps Southern New England Growing

By CATHERINE SENGEL/ecoRI News contributor

Three elephants are responsible for up to 80 percent of the waste produced by the zoo’s 280 animals. (Roger Williams Park Zoo)

Three elephants are responsible for up to 80 percent of the waste produced by the zoo’s 280 animals. (Roger Williams Park Zoo)

PROVIDENCE — Ron Patalano, director of operations at Roger Williams Park Zoo, has high praise for his staff. After all, it takes a mighty amount of shoveling to fill the two 30-yard Dumpsters of animal excrement that are hauled away weekly as part of the zoo’s recycling program.

Added to the grass clippings, vegetable scraps, animal bedding, hay and other natural materials trucked to Earth Care Farm in Charleston for composting, are 624 tons of manure produced annually by the zoo’s 280 inhabitants.

Keeping yards and buildings waste free “is not an easy job,” Patalano noted.

The zoo’s relationship with Earth Care Farm — Rhode Island’s longtime composting mecca — goes back at least 15 years, according to John Barth, the farm’s manager.

The South County operation sells about 4,000 cubic yards of high-quality compost a year to farmers, gardeners and landscapers throughout southern New England. Included in this nutrient-rich mix are food scrap, fish gurry, shellfish and seaweed. The animal waste from the 100 species that inhabit the zoo adds biodiversity and heat to the process.

“The manure is probably less than five percent of the total finished product, but when you’re adding up 60 cubic yards a week for a year it’s a significant amount,” Barth said.

Earth Care Farm also welcomes the wood shavings, straw bedding and spent exhibit staging, such as bamboo stalks and carved pumpkins, that come along with the animal waste.

Carnivores are screened for parasites and diseases, and dewormed monthly by the zoo’s Veterinary Department, ensuring manure is free of dangerous microorganisms and safe for composting, according to Peg Ogert, the zoo’s buildings and grounds/horticulture manager.

Patalano estimated that the elephants generate between 70 percent and 80 percent of the more than 3,000 cubic yards of manure composted annually.

“While I give our entire keeper staff a lot of credit, for the elephant crew, it’s a yeoman’s job every day taking care of our three girls,” he said.

The crew rotates with four keepers on the elephant side and two on the giraffe side of their 7,000-square-foot shared home at any given time. In summer when “the girls” are outdoors around the clock, there’s that acre to clean as well.

Roger Williams Park Zoo gets star mention on farm tours for garden clubs, civic groups and schools, Barth said.

“People like to hear that places like the zoo are thinking ahead and not sending their waste to the landfill,” he said. “The school children really like the elephant manure. They get a big kick out of the pile.”