An Inside Look at Zoo Arboriculture

In this article with Arbor Age, Dan Powell, district manager of Davey's Naples office, talks about the different challenges presented when caring for trees in a zoo. 

Posted: March 28, 2016 

By Michelle Sutton 

Whether they’re in-house or contracted, arborists who work in zoos have to be high-level communicators, coordinating work hour by hour with zookeepers. The tree work has to be done safely and without stressing the animals — yet efficiently, so that the animals are not removed from public view any longer than necessary.

The 43-acre Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens in Naples, Florida contracts Davey Tree. Danielle Green, director of gardens and grounds, said, “Scheduling work in a zoo can be very tricky; it requires coordination with nearly every department of the zoo, including guest services, the animal and horticulture departments, and even food service to ensure work can be completed in a timely manner with the least amount of guest and animal disruption. Davey has always been accommodating, even if it means workdays are shortened, lengthened or rescheduled.”

Davey Naples Branch Manager Dan Powell said, “At most job sites, the client clears the way for the arborist. But at the zoo, the arborist’s movements are dictated by the zookeepers in relation to each individual animal.”

Over time, the Davey team has learned a great deal about the animals at Naples Zoo. For example, Powell said that when the crew initially pruned ficus trees away from the giraffe exhibit/habitat perimeter, they thought 24-inch clearance was adequate to keep the giraffes from eating the branches. “But when the zookeepers told us that the giraffes have tongues that are 8 to 10 inches long, we had an ‘a-ha’ moment that we had to cut further back,” he said.

Safe and calm  

It can be hard to predict the many ways the animals will interact with the trees in and out of their exhibits. Former longtime Jungle Island (Miami, Fla.) Director of Horticulture Jeff Shimonski recounts when a female orangutan climbed to the top of a structure within her space in an attempt to reach the fronds of an out-of-exhibit palm tree on a very windy day. She stood on the top of a 10-inch-wide pole about 25 feet off the ground and kept trying to grab one of the palm fronds blowing in the wind, and finally, she was successful at pulling in the frond.

“She suddenly shot out of the enclosure like a rocket while fortunately maintaining her grip on the palm,” said Shimonski. “It would have been pretty funny except for the fact that a 10-year-old orangutan was now outside of her exhibit. She seemed scared to death and remained clinging to the palm while those of us below figured out what to do. We finally had to dart her and catch her on a blanket, fireman-style, when she fell from her perch. She was not injured, but I had to cut down two of the palms immediately so she would not escape that way again.”

A lot of things that arborists in the larger world take for granted — such as the ability to run a chain saw — are things zoo arborists must reconsider. Davey Naples Arborist Derek Harris said, “We use hand saws when in the vicinity of the giraffes and around impalas and anteaters, all of whom tend to be nervous.” To avoid using loud trucks to remove pruned branches and other debris from job sites, the Davey team uses the zoo’s quiet golf carts to haul out the bio matter in small batches, and they seldom use noisy chippers. (The downside of this: it takes much longer to extract debris.)

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