By MARK DAVIS
This ain't shinola, folks. No one knows that better than the people who greet each morning, shovel in hand, as they scoop up ... .
Call them the poop patrol, those bold souls who trail behind the three elephants at Zoo Atlanta, scraping up those smelly mounds that invariably trail a pachyderm's path.
Three or more times daily, they shovel hundreds of pounds of elephant dung — nearly a ton a day, about 600 pounds per beast, an Everest of excrement. It winds up as compost, courtesy of a Carroll County businessman who recycles the redolent refuse.
On Tuesday morning, while Atlanta motorists fumed, Jamie Harmon huffed in the fumes of elephant dung. She leaned her slight frame against a snow shovel, pushing at the last of a brownish mound inside the cinder-block building where Zambesi, Starlet and Victoria spend most chilly evenings. The three African elephants were outside, sniffing. Their trunks arced like question marks: What would the day bring?
Harmon, a Georgia State University senior interning at the zoo, began her day just outside a room whose floor was covered with hay, poop and elephant urine. A biology major who wants to be a zoo veterinarian, Harmon took a few whiffs of the clean morning air, then ventured in. Thirty minutes later, she was done — for the moment.
"It's a good workout," Harmon said. She gestured at the floor, still wet from a recent hosing, and sniffed for emphasis.
"It's not as bad as it seems," she said. "Plus, the benefits [of cleaning] outweigh the negatives."
Translation: If you do the shovel shift, you can work with the elephants.
Keeping elephants is work, said Danielle Green. She's the zoo's curator of horticulture and environmental initiatives — a tortured job title that's easy to understand: She's in charge of planting and recycling.
Green, who flinches whenever someone tosses a perfectly reusable scrap of paper in a trash can, took a look at the mountains of elephant excrement and knew that someone could put that stuff to good use.
Elephants, she said, make superior waste to, say, cows. Because elephants don't have multiple stomachs, as bovines do, the stuff that comes out isn't a whole lot different than the stuff that went in. A bale of hay comes out as a half-eaten stack — perfect for composting, Green said.
"To me," she said, "elephant poop doesn't smell as bad as cow poop."
It smells pretty good to Wayne Seabolt, a 65-year-old Carroll County entrepreneur who owns Natural Growth Inc. of Roopville. He met Green about two years ago at a composting conference at the University of Georgia. It was a fortuitous meeting: Seabolt, who already was turning chicken and horse droppings into compost, was looking for more dung; Green, who had an entire mountain range of the stuff, wanted someone to take it. The zoo was spending an estimated $30,000 to haul off the poop, plus other droppings, every year.
Before long, zoo workers were carrying the elephant droppings to a self-contained trailer at the rear of the zoo. Seabolt comes every Monday and trucks the stuff back to his farm in Roopville, about an hour west of Atlanta. There, he spreads the stuff in windrows on a 4- to 5-acre field. He adds carbon to neutralize the mixture and then lets it sit for about three months. Periodically, he drives his tractor across the field, turning the dung with a large tillerlike device. The sun's heat turns something elephants no longer want into a product growers prize.
The compost that emerges is so rich that you can grow just about anything, anywhere, in it, Seabolt said. Spread 3 inches on a yard? The grass nearly leaps out of the dirt. It's also good for ornamentals, vegetables, "just about anything," said Seabolt, who noted that the zoo also uses his elephant compost on its plant beds.
It's not too pricey, either. A ton — enough to fill a long-bed pickup — costs $50, he said.
(Seabolt also visits the zoo whenever the Budweiser Clydesdales come to town. The massive equines, he said, make marvelous excrement.)
Do people ever tease him about what's growing in his Roopville field?
"There are some people who find it amusing," Seabolt said.
Amanda Campbell, manager of display gardens for the Atlanta Botanical Garden, isn't dumping on his business. The botanical garden uses about six dump-truck loads of horse-manure-based compost every year. It's good stuff, she said.
"They're [elephants] kind of like compost factories within themselves," she said.
Factories where the wheels never stop, where the production never ceases. One day, the zoo may even sell the compost in little bags at its gift shop.
No, it's not shinola. If you're a grower, it's better.