Zoo Doo Doo

Why does it smell like poo? That is the question every parent is asked the first time their child comes to the zoo and the question every Zookeeper hears a hundred times a day. Every single day someone will ask, “Why does it smell like poop?” We always make time to answer as many questions as we can, but we know there are many of you out there that have not had the opportunity to ask. Hopefully, we can reach some of you out there who never got to ask or wanted a deeper dive into the world of poop.

The short answer? Everything poops! Even the tiniest organisms poop, and we have some exceptionally large animals that have exceptionally large amounts of poop and do not know how to use a toilet. The Zookeepers clean the poop out of their enclosures at least once a day, so pooper scooping is a regular part of the Zookeeper's routine. When you walk by a Zookeeper cleaning an enclosure, they have nicely gathered it up on a trailer to compost it, and you happened to walk by their concentrated poop collection.

Smell aside, we wanted to share with you some of the more interesting aspects of poop and the importance that it has when it comes to animal care.

If you need to see how the health of an animal is doing, their poop tells the story. Is the poop dry and breaks apart easily? Well, that animal could be dehydrated. Is it extremely wet?  It could mean we need to change that animal’s diet, or it ate something that it was not supposed to eat. There are many different signs of health concerns when you look at poop and you can take note of the color, odor, and firmness to point you in the right direction.

At a zoo, or for many pet owners, poop is often one of the easiest samples to get from an animal. No contact, no needles, no sedation needed, and therefore is a non-invasive sample (which is always preferred for the safety and comfort of the animals). Quick and easy, you find the poop, take a quick look, and if necessary, you put it through some tests to make sure no parasites or other problems are present.

So, what can poo tell you? The most obvious, and often forgotten, is that just having fresh poop in an animal’s enclosure tells us the animal is not constipated. Constipation affects animals just like humans and needs to be dealt with as soon as possible to avoid potential toxicities from a buildup of waste.
We need to ensure that an animal is passing feces as often as it should be, however, it is not always as simple as it sounds to check their poop every day because not every animal poops the same.

For example, snakes generally only poop once between meals. That sounds normal but adult snakes may only eat once a month to even every three months depending on the species. Another difficult check is for herd animals. Unless you watched the white-tailed deer poop and go out and grab it right then and there, you won’t really know which of the dozen in the field it belongs to right away. Establishing “species norms” before anyone takes care of an animal is an important start to using poo as an indicator in any type of health check and sometimes is only an indicator to knowing one of the bunch is having a problem.

Now, have you ever seen an animal eat their own poop before? Maybe your dog or even an animal at the zoo? Even insects eat poop and we do not see it.  Most of these animals will eat their own poop because of the undigested food, and vital nutrients, that they do not want to go to waste. For example, rabbits, capybara, chinchillas, hippos, and gorillas are the few animals that eat their poop.

Rabbits eat their poop because it helps them get nutrients they would not get otherwise. To explain, in the digestive system there is something called the cecum, which is a long pouch attached between the small and large intestine. The cecum houses bacteria which help break down cellulose and other plant materials that animals often struggle to break down. When the food leaves the cecum and enters the large intestine, not all the nutrients can be absorbed before the poop exits the body. When the rabbit poops there are still nutrients locked in that the bacteria worked hard to break down and it would be a shame for it to go to waste. So, they eat it again! Something important to note is that rabbits make two different kinds of droppings, meaning they won’t eat the same poop a second time. The first poops are called cecotropes and are soft, mucus-covered, and lumpy like blackberry, and the second type is the firm, round balls of final poop. This is a process called coprophagy and functions the same as cows chewing their cud which also uses bacteria to break down tough plant material. It is important to keep rabbits from getting constipated since they are re-ingesting their poop to get the nutrients they need. If anything gets stuck in the rabbit’s esophagus or intestine, they ingested all the waste as well and this could cause a toxic buildup inside. Rabbits cannot vomit, so if they eat something bad, they have no option other than to wait it out.

Poop is also a necessary part of an ecosystem! The example we are going to use is the third-largest land animal. Which animal is that? Well, folks that would happen to be the Hippo! 

Let me start off by telling you that hippos play an important role in the ecosystem with their poo. Hippo poo brings nutrition into the water of the lakes they live in. In fact, hippos are responsible for depositing literally tons of nutrients from land to the water to supply plankton and bacteria with the nutrients to support a large portion of the pond and lake food chains.

Get ready for the POO-NADO! 

Yes, you read that right, a poo-nado. Hippos poo by lifting their tail and swinging it back and forth and sometimes in a full spin, spraying poop in every direction behind them and dispersing it across the water. Hence the poo-nado reference. They spend up to 16 hours in the comfort of their pools during the day and every night will then lumber onto dry land where they eat loads of grass. Once they are done eating, they return to the water to digest their meals, and then, you guessed it, look out poo-nado!

To wrap up our lovely poop talk we are going to leave you with a parting bit of wisdom. Never underestimate the importance of poop. As we discussed, it tells us a lot about an animal’s health and is often the safest and easiest check we can do to make sure an animal is healthy. It can also be a key part of a wild animal’s health and can be a key part of an ecosystem’s structure. So hopefully, after all this poo talk, you can walk away with a little more appreciation for some of the smells of the animal kingdom.

This is nowhere near everything to know about poop, so let us know if you want more! edu@gvzoo.com

Bonus fact: Wombat poop comes out as a cube, not a ball or a log shape. That is because of the way their colon is shaped and positioned, which never gives it time to become round.


1           https://theconversation.com/the-amazing-things-poo-can-tell-you-about-an-animals-health-59683

2          https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know/rabbits-eat-their-own-poop#:~:text=Rabbits%20and%20hares%20beat%20this,digest%20it%20a%20second%20time.&text=It's%20very%20important%20for%20a,get%20the%20nutrients%20they%20need

3          https://phys.org/news/2015-04-hippo-dung-important-nutrients-river.html 

4         http://meetings.aps.org/link/BAPS.2018.DFD.E19.1

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