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Tree Donation Brings Holiday Cheer (And Snacks) To The Phoenix Zoo

(Photo by Mariana Dale - KJZZ)
“They’ll probably want to take it themselves and not share," primate manager Mary Yoder said. "Right now, they’re being really nice to each other.”

Every year, Jayne Mitchell can’t even keep track of how many trees pass through the Christmas tree lot started by her parents in 1950.

There's silver-tipped fir, white fir, noble fir, Nordmann fir, Fraser fir and more. Some are knee-height and many more tower over Mitchell.

The trees from Tim Mitchell's Christmas Tree Lot end up in Valley living rooms, framing church stages, at swanky parties and at the Phoenix Zoo.

The Mitchell family donated almost 50 trees to the zoo this year.

In the orangutan exhibit, Kasih hangs from a rope to pluck popcorn from the top branches of a tree decorated with snacks.  

“We need them to stay active like they would in the wild," primate manager Mary Yoder said. "We don’t want them to get bored.”

The donated trees are part of the animal's enrichment program. Usually they get trimmings from the zoo grounds, called browse, but the holidays offer a special opportunity.

"The browse that we collect varies from being supplement to diet to something that hoof-stock type animal might spar with," said Scott Frische, the zoo's curator of horticulture.

Asian elephant Indu swings her trunk toward a Douglas fir decked with kettle corn, honey, greens and a pear where an angel or star would go. When she's done with the treats, she'll go after the tree's needles and bark, her keepers said.

"I think it’s as equally fun for the keepers as it is for the animals," Yoder said.

As for the Mitchells, providing holiday cheer to the animals of the zoo is part of their family tradition.

“We’re from Arizona, and we like to take care of our fellow Arizonans,” Jayne Mitchell said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Fraser fir.

Mariana Dale rustles up stories as a senior field correspondent based out of KJZZ’s East Valley Bureau in Tempe. She’s followed a microphone onto cattle ranches, to the Dominican Republic and many places in between. Dale believes in a story’s strength to introduce us to diverse perspectives, inspire curiosity and hold public leaders accountable for their actions. She started at KJZZ on the digital team in 2016 and still spends a lot of time thinking about how to engage with our community online. Dale has learned from stints at Arizona Public Media, The Arizona Daily Star, The Arizona Republic and as an intern at NPR’s Morning Edition in Culver City. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Dale is grateful for the mentoring of the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, the Chips Quinn Scholars program and AIR’s New Voices Scholars. A desert native, she loves spending time outside hiking, tending to her cactus and reading.