Photo credit: Pixabay
It seems impossible to imagine Christmas without the Christmas tree – from picking out the biggest and bushiest to kitting it out in the same decorations each year and finally placing the rather tatty angel on the upmost branch. The Christmas tree is the centrepiece of the festive season and has been linked to the winter since ancient times due to its evergreen nature – plants and trees of this type were once believed to ward off evil.  16th Century Germany is credited with beginning the tree tradition as it is known today, and in 1846, Queen Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert kick-started the trend in Britain,  where decorated pine trees are now an established image of festivity. Yet once the New Year arrives, Christmas trees become unwanted and are tossed aside; as a result, those which vendors could not sell need to be removed and many which did have a home for Christmas are left discarded on city streets.  These processes are wasteful when Christmas trees are recyclable – usually they are shredded into chippings for use in local parks or woodland.  However, a handful of zoos have found an innovative use for old Christmas trees which makes the New Year particularly exciting for animals in captivity. 
Christmas trees can be used as food in zoos and doing so has a variety of benefits for the animals. That familiar scent of pine which fills us with yuletide joy each year also pleases animals such as polar bears and leopards, who behave playfully and in an explorative manner, as well as Asian lions who are stimulated by the woody smell.  The festive treats aren’t only responsible for enlightening mood, but also for the nutritional benefits they provide.  The bark is feasted upon by a range of different species – from camels to stags and mountain goats to elephants.  Consuming these parts of the tree provides high fibre intake which is vital for maintenance of healthy digestive systems.  Animals are especially grateful for the extra roughage over winter, when tree leaves are sparse and harder to come by.  German zoos in particular have gone to extreme lengths to keep their elephants happy and healthy - Opel Zoo reportedly feeds the elephants one or two trees a day and Wuppertal Zoo served up 800 in 2012. 
The nutritional benefits don’t end there – it is well known that pine needles are extremely rich in vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid.  This is why pine needle tea has been used as a natural scurvy remedy in the past.  The tea supposedly contains up to five times more vitamin C than freshly squeezed orange juice and also offers high amounts of vitamin A.  Vitamin C is just as important to many zoo animals as it is to us  – benefits include protecting and keeping cells healthy and helping collagen production (which maintains healthy connective tissue, giving support and structure to tissues and organs).  Vitamin C additionally assists the wound healing process and acts as an antioxidant to protect against damage by free radicals, toxic chemicals and pollutants. 
Using Christmas trees as zoo food is clearly a clever idea – not only does it help to address the issue of unwanted or unsold trees, but it also provides nutrition and mental stimulation to zoo animals. However, this seemingly perfect problem-solver is at risk – Christmas trees are increasingly being chemically treated before they are sold.  Public demand means that chemicals are used to prolong how long trees last in the home, as well as to make them inflammable.  Although these are undeniable improvements to tree buyers, it leaves trees unrecyclable and dangerous to feed to animals. The only trees which are acceptable as nourishment are those which are absolutely uncontaminated, which is becoming rarer and is also hard to prove.  Therefore, although recycling Christmas trees to zoos seems ideal at first glance, it is vital to ensure that only natural trees are donated in order to avoid doing more harm than good to the animals.