Dallas Zoo crew cooks up some wild dishes for finicky eaters

DALLAS (AP) — Most restaurants have to contend with finicky eaters, food supply issues and the bottom line.

But at the Dallas Zoo, those who prepare meals for more than 2,000 animals each day also have to worry about their diners’ lifespan and sex lives.

“We’re probably pickier than some restaurants,” said Kerri Slifka, the zoo’s curator of nutrition. “We have to be very careful because we’re dealing with endangered animals and animals we want to reproduce and live long lives.”

At the zoo’s 8,000-square-foot William M. Beecherl Animal Nutrition Center, Slifka fine tunes diets based on animals’ weight, appearance and behavior. Though many of the animals dine together, even within a species the needs are varied. When Katie the giraffe was pregnant, and then nursing baby Kipenzi, for example, she needed more calories than the rest of herd.

The center puts together about 200 individualized diets and the needs of the collection change daily.

Some animals are picky eaters and others have diets that change with the seasons. Some primates prefer romaine lettuce but eschew Swiss chard. One anteater is particular to the taste of peach baby food.

The koalas like only the tips of eucalyptus, which has to be flown in from Arizona. The Texas horned lizards primarily eat harvester ants, but heavy rains in May made collection difficult for suppliers, Slifka said.

“Part of what makes it difficult is what makes it exciting,” said Slifka, who started her career nearly 30 years ago at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. “I’ve described it as a puzzle but the picture keeps changing and I don’t have all the pieces. I’m never ever done.”

She said the team’s success with nutrition efforts can be measured, in part, with the birth of healthy babies such as Kipenzi and the zoo’s new ocelot, Mateo.

But babies aren’t easy to feed, either.

It cost the center $10,000 to feed four new marabou stork chicks, which eat a lot of dead, whole prey, just for the first 110 days of their life, Slifka told The Dallas Morning News (http://bit.ly/1M7WHzo ).

Then there are the six spoonbill chicks that Slifka joked were “eating us out of house and home.”

Slifka’s food budget accounts for $800,000 to $900,000 out of the zoo’s total operating expense of $25 million. The center also staffs a nutrition supervisor, six keepers and 20 volunteers.

They also provide the bulk of the diet for the 5,000 specimens at the Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park.

The Philadelphia Zoo was the first to focus on nutrition in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But it wasn’t until 1978 that the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., became the first to hire a nutritionist, said Mike Maslanka, head of the Department of Nutrition Science at the National Zoo and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Now, about 20 of 220 institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums have them, he said.

It’s important to have someone who keeps on top of the latest science and issues in the evolving field, such as sustainable sourcing, and tweaks diets in response, Maslanka said.

The National Zoo once received a male Andean bear, a threatened species, in hopes that it would breed, Maslanka said. But the bear was overweight — or “overconditioned” as zoo nutritionists call it.

At that size, there was no way it way going to breed, Maslanka said. After the zoo put the bear on a diet, he lost 170 pounds — and his breeding partner later birthed cubs.

“If we hadn’t done that, and that animal hadn’t bred, its genes wouldn’t be represented in that population any longer,” he said.

The Dallas Zoo’s nutrition center, which opened in 2012, has a freezer full of whole prey such as mice, quail and rabbits.

Large bins labeled “flamingo bits” and “crane diet” sit next to primate biscuits in a room off the kitchen. Nearby, neat piles of bagged food for leaf-eaters are labeled as “lemur size” and “gorilla size.”

Meal worms slither in a tray in the kitchen as keepers and volunteers thumb through binders that indicate whether flamingos and egrets will get capelin or smelt that day, and how many grams of carrots, apples and oranges the gorillas will have.

Brightly colored produce is delivered fresh twice a week. Fruit is mostly for enrichment. The foundation of most animals’ diets is a nutritionally complete pellet feed.

The center’s day begins at 6:30 a.m. Keepers and volunteers load up golf carts with food packaged the previous day to be delivered to each exhibit. Others stay behind to start prepping the next day’s meals.

The zoo is peaceful as the keepers file in and birds call out.

But at 9 a.m. it’s showtime as the zoo opens to its guests.

On a recent day, the chimps are released into their exhibit, where squash has been scattered near a window. One barrels toward a coconut, scoops it up and runs away. The chimps work to crack open the fruit by stomping on the coconuts and throwing them against rocks. A younger chimp throws its coconut up in the air.

“The keepers have the option to distribute the diet around the exhibit, to use it as enrichment” or training, Slifka said. “They can chop it up, hide it, put it in an enrichment device, do a variety of different things.”

Elephant keeper Samantha Scrudato hides food like zucchini in an imitation African fig tree to help mimic how the pachyderms would forage in the wild. The elephants mostly eat high-fiber hay and are generally the most expensive to keep — about $15,000 a year each — because of how much they eat, Slifka said.

The four elephants are offered 125 pounds of food a day, not including trees and bushes.

In another exhibit, several Galapagos tortoises amble toward reptile keeper Shana Fredlake, who is handing out squash.

Though the tortoises are genetically predisposed to live longer, “obviously nutrition is a huge part of it,” she said. “You can’t feed them french fries every day and expect them to grow and live for hundreds of years.”

Some food challenges are self-imposed — and just for fun.

A crowd of guests watched Saturday as Winspear the cheetah and his black Labrador companion, Amani, darted skittishly around a tiered birthday cake topped with a “2.”

The colorful layers of frozen chicken broth, water and evaporated milk were stacked between two ice flower pots covered with dog food ground up to look like dirt.

In keeping with the “Best of Buds” theme, the cake had edible flowers, catnip and squash blossoms from the nutrition center’s garden.

“The challenge is to make sure everything in the cake is part of their diet,” said Aaron Bussell, the zoo’s nutrition supervisor. “It’s kind of difficult to do a cake that’s good for a dog and a cat together.”

Bussell has about 40 animal party treats under his belt, including a chimp-shaped produce cake and a floating sashimi meal complete with crab cocktail and a goldfish for the zoo’s otters. For the zoo’s 125th birthday, he made 24 cakes for animals in a weekend.

“I can’t believe they pay me to do this,” said Bussell, a former restaurant chef who previously worked in nursing home nutrition. “It really is an art for me and I get really passionate about it and really challenge myself to do something really different or unique.”

While Winspear largely kept his distance from the frozen cake until coaxed with meat, Amani lapped the ice and scarfed down the dog treats. In the end, they ate more than Bussell expected.

“It went really well,” he said. “I’m really happy.”

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Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com

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