PHOTOS: Animals explore donated Christmas trees at Austin Zoo

A bear at the Austin zoo searches for lettuce and other treats hidden in a donated Christmas tree on Dec. 30, 2017 (Courtesy Austin Zoo)
A bear at the Austin zoo searches for lettuce and other treats hidden in a donated Christmas tree on Dec. 30, 2017 (Courtesy Austin Zoo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Christmas is just starting for some in Central Texas, and you can help them celebrate with your holiday leftovers.

The Austin Zoo is collecting Christmas trees to give to its animals to play with and hunt through for food. You can donate your tree — once you remove all the ornaments, tinsel, and other non-natural items — from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day at the front of the zoo’s gift shop, and employees will re-purpose it into a treat for the animals there.

“If they like to use it and explore, I think that’s wonderful,” Micah Linnell said. He was at the zoo with his wife, Marjan, 4-year-old son Keon and infant daughter Penny on Thursday when the animals got their first batch of trees, donated by the Whole Foods store in Bee Cave.

The family has a zoo membership and noticed the Christmas trees last year. This year, they’re considering donating theirs. “We don’t need it, and we’re just going to dump it,” Linnell said, “so why not give it to the animals if they’re going to play with it and enjoy it?”

Zoo employees put two trees into the female lion habitat Thursday, decorated with raw turkey. “So that’ll give them something that they kind of have to hunt for,” said Marcy Griffith, the zoo’s manager of compliance, “and then I’m going to put some scent on here.”

It’s been a tough year for the two lions who got those treats; both were evacuated from a zoo in Victoria that flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Like many in southeast Texas, they could use a little cheer this holiday season.

“It’s a festive spirit for everyone,” Todor Gavrilov said. “The animals got to celebrate Christmas too, right?”

Different animals use the trees different ways, Griffith said. For instance, the porcupines will chew on them, the big cats will play with them, and the bears use them as a stand-in for the wild. “This is something that encourages a natural behavior, which is hunting for food,” Griffith said, “and so we have put some nuts in there, some grapes, some of their favorite treats in there.”

For all of them, it’s just something new and different. “Something extra for them to play with,” Linnell said.

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