Everything You Need To Know About Woodland Park Zoo's Precious Doo

Apr 14, 2014

  People from North Everett to Bainbridge Island are lining up at Woodland Park Zoo to collect the winnings from an exotic lottery. They've won the right to buy a full truckload of composted animal dung.

In all, 743 people submitted their names in this spring’s “Fecal Fest," but only 200 will drive away with the prized loads.

Meet 'The GM Of BM, The Number One Of Number Two'

Dan Corum is the zoo’s compost and recycling coordinator, but his nametag reads "curator of endangered feces.” His self-proclaimed titles include "Dr. Doo," "the Number One of Number Two" and "the GM of BM."

Dan Corum, curator of endangered feces at the Woodland Park Zoo, stands on a steaming pile of future garden mulch.
Dan Corum, curator of endangered feces at the Woodland Park Zoo, stands on a steaming pile of future garden mulch.
Credit Rae Ellen Bichell / KPLU

Every morning through April 19, Corum will direct people to precious piles of composted excrement, contributed by 24 herbivores from giraffes and elephants, to tapirs and wart hogs.

The zoo’s three elephants are the most generous. Their daily dung product weighs in at 900 pounds, and some of that gets made into paper (an explanation of the process includes the phrase "steam clean the fibrous poo balls"). The rest goes to the composting yard.

The result — gardening gold — is available year-round in two-gallon buckets, for about twice the price of milk. Zoos in California and Oregon offer their processed excreta to the public, too.

How Zoo Doo Is Made

The zoos that sell doo are consistent in one respect: they only use healthy herbivore waste. That's because of the slight risk of disease from contact with the feces of carnivores, primates and sick animals. The protein-packed carnivore waste tends to smell bad, too, and zoos tend to avoid the risk of stinking up the neighborhood.

The piles get hot enough to burn off most of the resident pathogens.
The piles get hot enough to burn off most of the resident pathogens.
Credit Rae Ellen Bichell / KPLU

It’s heavy-duty work making fertilizer from feces. The elephants do the easy part. Zookeepers scrape that up into piles. Then, bacteria kick in.

"This is the zoo within the zoo," said Corum of the microbe communities that turn feces into fertilizer. "They're eating it and digesting it, and they are exponentially reproducing in that pile. All that energy and activity — that's where all the steam comes from. They are just exploding in there."  

The heat rises enough to kill off most of the lurking pathogens. Thermometers sticking out of the steaming piles read 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

It takes about three months just to cool off, and another three months before it’s garden-ready. Corum claims his product is just well-made compost, but according to the people picking up their prize loads, the stuff’s unbeatable.

Past Winner: Zoo Doo's Composting Powers Tried And True

I caught Shannon and Julie, sisters with ambitious orchard plans, in the midst of flinging poo into the back of their Ranger pickup.

Shannon Carpenter gets her boots hosed off before heading home with a full truck bed.
Shannon Carpenter gets her boots hosed off before heading home with a full truck bed.
Credit Rae Ellen Bichell / KPLU

"I'm just excited to be here with my sister and my shovel," said Shannon. The sisters are hoping it'll help their Ballard and Bainbridge gardens sprout everything from Asian pears to figs.

Emma, an artist and gardener in Greenwood, says she's won the lottery about once every three years. She's picking up bedspread — the bedding that the herbivores live in that includes poop plus straw and wood shavings — for her perennial plants.

"I have a strawberry bed, and every year, it does really well when I put some zoo doo on it," she said. 

During years when she doesn't win the zoo lottery, Emma offers to shovel out her friend's goat pen.

"But goats are smaller than elephants, so this is a richer source of what I need for strawberries," she said. 

Prized Load Paying Off For Zoo

The zoo has held the biannual Fecal Fest for almost 30 years now. In that time, it’s sold off enough processed animal muck to fill the cargo holds of about 450 Boeing 737 airplanes. The zoo used to have to pay around $60,000 to $80,000 to haul it to a composting site or a landfill. But it's been making about $15,000 a year from selling the prime fertilizer.

All that glistens may not be gold, but composted dung can come pretty close.