Once every two or three days, a truck leaves the zoo, pulling behind it a trailer full of elephant dung.
The trailer is about the size of a car, and it’s headed for Ashland.
The tarp-covered truck takes the load from the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium to the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari. The trailer then tips and dumps the load, black plastic trash bags and all, into a hole in the ground.
Then it’s lit on fire, said Dr. Doug Armstrong, director of animal health at the zoo.
The reason? Parasites.
“We don’t want to introduce any new ticks into the United States, so that’s really the overwhelming concern,” Armstrong said. “There aren’t really a lot of major infectious disease issues with elephants, so it was really more about parasites.”
Any time an animal is imported to the United States, it must undergo a federally mandated quarantine period. The zoo’s six new elephants are being held in quarantine for about 30 days, or until released by Department of Agriculture veterinarians who have been inspecting them.
With the end of that 30 days on the horizon, the elephants are expected to be released from quarantine and go on display any day now.
Every day since the zoo’s elephants arrived from Swaziland, Africa, on March 11, keepers have shoveled elephant poop into black trash bags to load onto a trailer and then sprayed those bags with insecticide. Each elephant fills a bag or more a day, Armstrong said.
When the trailer arrives at the wildlife park, the dung is still fresh, so staff members use diesel fuel as an accelerant to torch it. They can’t wait for it to dry out because there could be tick larvae inside.
“It’s a complicated process when you think about poop,” Armstrong said.
After they’ve dumped and burned the load, staffers at the wildlife park bury the ash at least 6 feet underground, near the park’s composting pile and away from other animals.
While the elephants wait in quarantine, nothing — not even a little excrement — goes unchecked.
That process began immediately. Before the elephants were loaded in Swaziland, the crates had tarps strung underneath to catch any leakage. They were re-wrapped along the route for safety.
Then when the animals arrived in Omaha, more than a dozen workers in partial hazmat suits hauled black trash bags full of material out of the crates, sprayed them with insecticide and sprayed the inside of the trailer. That first load was trucked to Kansas City to be torched. Armstrong said that was the nearest approved incinerating facility, and the zoo wanted to be extra careful.
“In many cases it’s just overkill, but we’re doing everything we can to make sure we don’t introduce any new parasites to the United States,” he said.
Despite the truckloads of excrement, Armstrong said, the elephants are actually eating less than elephants in many other zoos. Recent research, he said, shows that zoos were overfeeding elephants.
“Compared to what most people are used to seeing in zoo elephants, ours are going to look thin. That’s how they should look,” he said. “That’s how they look in the wild.”
Before the elephants came to Omaha, they spent several months in temporary holding areas called bomas in Swaziland. There, they transitioned to a diet made up mostly of hay, with miscellaneous branches, leaves and other foliage — known as browse — mixed in. In Omaha, that mix will continue.
According to the Omaha Zoo Foundation, it costs $100 to feed an elephant for a day.
The zoo has six zookeepers to help manage the elephants, some of whom moved over from other animal specialties to help out. Among their duties is, well, scooping poop.
After the quarantine period, the elephant dung will be composted in the zoo’s own on-site facility.