Saturday morning, Roger Elder hitched a 12-foot Doolittle Master Dump trailer to his truck and drove 30 miles from his home in Kearney to the Kansas City Zoo.
Elder didn’t go to the zoo to look at elephants, rhinos and hippos. He went to purchase a truckload of their composted poop.
“I use it on my garden,” Elder said. “I’ve got the biggest tomato plants in the neighborhood.”
Every spring and fall, the Kansas City Zoo invites the public to come buy its “Zoo Manoo,” organic fertilizer made with manure produced by hundreds of the park’s plant-eating animals.
“Elephants and rhinos are the big producers,” said Randy Wisthoff, the zoo’s chief executive and executive director. “And then there are the hoofed animals. Zebras, eland. … Those are the animals that eat a lot of hay.”
What goes in must come out: The zoo’s animals produce more than 90 tons of manure annually. About 75 percent of that — 70 tons a year — is diverted from landfills and composted on-site.
Wisthoff said composting is the most efficient way to dispose of animal manure. He added that the process was standard practice at zoos long before it was cool to reduce, reuse and recycle.
“If you treat it right, you end up with some extremely good byproduct,” he said. “It will really make your tomatoes grow.”
The compost is made out of public view on a patch of gravel between the gorilla and elephant enclosures. It takes about two years for fresh manure to break down into nutrient-rich compost, said Shannan Harris, a gardener in the zoo’s horticulture department.
Harris said the process begins when manure is mixed with plant matter such as discarded straw bedding, dead leaves and pine needles. The mixture can be quite pungent at first, especially when it contains rhino droppings.
“The rhino has the most potent smell of all of them,” he said.
The mixture is piled high, then left to decompose. Every three months, Harris infuses the pile with oxygen by mixing it up with a front-end loader tractor. The dirty job takes two eight-hour workdays.
As the compost cures, it becomes darker and loses its unpleasant odor. By the time it’s ready to scoop and sell, it resembles moist black dirt.
“It’s pretty potent, if that’s the right word for it,” Wisthoff said.
The zoo recommends mixing the compost with an equal amount of topsoil, then working the mixture 6 to 8 inches deep. Compost helps soil retain water and stay cool during hot summer months. The zoo uses the organic fertilizer on its own plants.
“That’s why our flower beds look the way they do,” Harris said.
The zoo sells Zoo Manoo for $25 per truckload, or $20 for Friends of the Zoo members. Those with smaller gardens can buy it for about $5 per bucket.
Wisthoff said the program doesn’t pull in big profits, “but just producing it saves the zoo money because we’re not having to pay to dispose of the waste.”
The compost’s low price lured Hilary Fracassa from Lee’s Summit on Saturday.
Fracassa, who is planting her first garden this spring, said she planned to use the compost to fertilize her tomato, okra, pepper and spinach seedlings.
She said it didn’t bother her that the compost was made with droppings from an assortment of animals.
“I think it’s cool,” she said. “I’m all about zoo animals.”
Harris said most first-time Zoo Manoo buyers become repeat customers.
Elder, the gardener from Kearney, credits the compost for his prolific tomato plants. He said that last summer his eight plants produced about 5 1/2 gallons of fruit every week.
“It’s natural,” Elder said, “and a win-win for everyone.”
The Kansas City Zoo sells composted animal manure, or Zoo Manoo, to the public twice a year, in the spring and the fall. The compost costs $25 per truckload, or $20 for Friends of the Zoo members. Those with smaller gardens can buy the compost for $5 per bucket.