The five pounds of leaves and twigs that the Woodland Park Zoo's elephants eat in the zoo's new "feed an elephant" program barely make a dent in their daily diet (which includes 80 pounds of hay), but curator Bruce Upchurch says human participants are mesmerized by the experience.
"It's funny because people are standing in line and they're almost speechless," Upchurch says. "The impact is interesting."
More than 3,000 people have fed the zoo's elephants since the program was introduced earlier this year. The zoo already offers interactive feeding programs featuring giraffes and penguins.
"The whole idea is getting people up close," Upchurch says. "They're not actually touching, but it gets them a lot closer, so they can hear the crunch and see how the trunk works."
Participants in the $5 feeding program, which runs for an hour each afternoon, use a bamboo rod to reach the elephants. The zoo's three elephants--Bamboo, Chai, and Watoto--take turns in the feeding station.
"They like it fine," Upchurch says of the elephants. "Elephants kind of eat a lot, so it's hard to satiate them. To my knowledge, none of them have walked away."
Unsanctioned animal feeding used to be as common a zoo experience as hooting at primates. When President William Taft visited the Bronx Zoo in 1911, The New York Times reported he "stood up close to the cage like a small boy and allowed elephants to eat sugar out of his hand." By the 1950s, so many animals were gorging themselves on popcorn, cotton candy, and Cracker Jack that zoo patrons arriving in the late afternoon came to expect sick and sleepy beasts. In following decades, most zoos adopted a "Do not feed the animals" policy.
"I don't consider it a problem, but there are a few people out there who think that should be part of the experience," Upchurch says.
Those people's adventures usually end predictably, as when a bear in a Wisconsin zoo recently ripped off the fingers of a woman attempting to feed him from a plastic bag.
Bears, lions, and tigers are unlikely to ever star in their own feeding hours, Upchurch says. "Vegetarians are a good way to do this because they're eating constantly," Upchurch says, pointing out the logistical problems posed by delivering a single slab of red meat to a carnivore. "The big cats wouldn't work as well."