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For Pa. zoo, scraps from Hershey hit the spot

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By Nick Malawskey
Sunday, April 21, 2013, 9:18 p.m.

HERSHEY — Zoo naturalist Tal Wenrich was still a few yards down the path when the three wolves started trotting toward the fence, led by the black-and-brown Dakota.

Dakota, the alpha male of the tiny pack, ambled up to the fence expectantly, curious to see what had brought Wenrich to his corner of ZooAmerica in Derry Township, Dauphin County.

Behind Dakota, two younger wolves, Custer and Sioux, a brother-sister pair, stayed back, letting the older wolf take the lead.

As Wenrich walked up to the fence, a plastic cart in tow, he called out to the small pack.

“Hi, Dakota, how are you?” he asked in greeting to the 80-pound wolf, who eyed him warily and intelligently through the fence that separates them.

To the wolves, Wenrich's appearance could mean several things, including immunization shots or a visit from the veterinarian. Or, in this case, some tasty treats — raw fish sent to the zoo from the butcher at The Hotel Hershey nearby.

Wenrich heaved a fishy morsel over the fence, which Dakota ignored while Sioux quickly grabbed the bit of fish before retreating a few yards into the enclosure.

“Yummy!” Wenrich exclaimed, then added as an aside that, “Sioux is the smart one. She knows what's going on.”

Dakota was having none of it, even after Wenrich landed a chunk of fish a few feet from him. He sniffed it carefully then locked eyes with Wenrich.

“He's not sure about it,” Wenrich laughed, then addressed the wary wolf. “There's nothing hidden in there, Dakota, I promise.”

A few minutes later, apparently convinced that Wenrich wasn't trying to trick them into eating sedatives in preparation for a shot, the three wolves were busy chowing down on the fish. Nearby a family was leaning on a wooden fence, excitedly talking about the animals and snapping photographs.

The fish in question are fresh from The Hotel Hershey, part of a food-recycling program that started about three years ago. On Tuesdays and Fridays, the zoo staff visits the hotel, where the butcher and cooks collect choice scraps for the animals.

At first the hotel staff wasn't sure what to send, so they met with the zoo's naturalists to talk about which foods would be appropriate.

Fish are popular, and so are beef and lettuce, executive chef Ken Gladysz said.

The deer and tortoises “just go bonkers for the lettuce,” he said with a laugh.

The relationship started between the two Hershey Entertainment & Resorts Co. properties as a way to recycle the hotel's leftover trimmings, rather than just throwing them away. Last year, the hotel donated about 6,000 pounds of food to the zoo.

The program was highlighted as part of the zoo's Earth Day celebration on Sunday, along with other activities for children and families.

“We try to be financially responsible, as well as environmentally responsible,” Gladysz said. “It's been a great relationship and it's worked well.”

Probably no one is happier about the arrangement than Butch.

At the stock house for the zoo's pair of black bears, the 550-pound bruin ambled in from the open enclosure to the indoor feeding area.

Inside the building, Wenrich — who has worked with the zoo animals for 25 years — called Butch in for a snack.

“Come on Butchy, hurry up!” he implored the bear, who walked up to the wire cage and sat down expectantly.

“Silly bear,” Wenrich said, as he held a piece of beef up to the fence for Butch.

As he hand-fed the bear, Wenrich asked to see Butch's paws, his tongue and his teeth. With a treat of raw meat as his reward, the black bear ran through the motions with the naturalist.

“They're very intelligent,” he said. “They're like kids.”

Nick Malawskey is a staff writer for The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News.

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