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Zoo Nutritionists Keep Animals Healthy and Happy

March 17, 2008

The next time you visit the zoo, the animals may be in better health than ever. Zoo nutritionists are changing the diets of gorillas, polar bears, monkeys, and elephants all over the country.

This new trend of a nutritious diet is not much of a contrast from the recent fitness craze of people. Avoiding obesity plays a large part in the animal nutrition program. So does keeping the animals as happy as they were when they were eating their favorite treats.

Zoo animals and humans are similar; they both enjoy eating unhealthy, fatty, sugary foods. Jennifer Watts, staff nutritionist at Brookfield Zoo, west of Chicago, says that the animals are “not moving as much as they are genetically programmed to.” This is true due to the fact that they are caged, and not out in the open to run as they please. This presents a challenge in keeping the animals fit. Food is also often used for training ““ too many treats can add rolls to the stomach of even the best gorilla.

To keep the animals healthy, Watts is launching a Weight Watchers-esque program to track the animals’ diets with points. The animals have a certain number of points they can eat per day, as well as a few extra points a week for those goodies that motivate them.

Watts said of the diet, “We’re trying to keep calorie intake within a limit…We are very vigilant about monitoring the animals’ weight, because, like humans, it can lead to other health problems.”

Under Watts’ new plan, molasses, which is a favorite food of the bears, might be one point per cup, and granola bars might be worth one point as well. These foods are motivators for the creatures to get up and move around, as well as to learn tricks. And in the right quantity, they can be very helpful and healthy.

Various zoos are catching on to the fad, but some are doing things a little differently. The Indianapolis Zookeepers feed their animals sugar free treats instead of fattening ones. One of their tricks is to hide sugar-free Jell-O around the polar bears’ habitat so that they are forced to forage for their food.

The Toledo Zoo’s Chris Hanley claims low-salt crackers and alfalfa biscuits are excellent snacks. This particular zoo even schedules an annual “Big Feed” day where visitors feed animals veggies as well as other healthy snacks. That particular zoo also feeds their lions, tigers, and wolves real carcasses to provide a more natural diet, which requires expending energy to obtain.

Zoo nutrition is not a new fad. Animal nutritionists first began to appear in the 1970s; there are currently full time nutritionists at about 20 of the nation’s 216 accredited zoos, as well as consultants for the zoos that do not have full time nutritionists.

Prior to zoo nutrition becoming a science, many animals were overfed but malnourished ““ not receiving the appropriate supplements to their diets. The diets of animals still can’t be replicated perfectly, due to the fact that elements from their diets are difficult to obtain. As Watts said, “We can’t go to South America and collect the figs or the branches or the beetles that an animal eats there.” Instead, researchers obtain samples after careful observation of what items the animals consume and bring this information back to nutritionists so that the diets can be analyzed. Mimicking the nutrients is the best thing nutritionists can do.

An excellent example of a specimen that has been sustained with the help of proper nutrition is Cookie the Cockatoo at Brookfield Zoo. The bird is 74 years old, and most of its life, he subsisted entirely on seeds. These seeds have little calcium and are high in fats. Cookie eventually was diagnosed with osteoporosis, a bone-thinning condition. Presently Cookie gets the discovered missing minerals in his water every day to prevent his bones from weakening further.

Zoo nutritionists definitely have their work cut out for them. Designing animal diets is not an easy task. Unlike the one-species-focus of human nutrition, zoo nutrition must cover the diets of many animals. There are so many different feeding strategies and dietary needs for the huge variety of animals at the zoo that all have to be addressed properly.

On the Net:

Brookfield Zoo

Toledo Zoo




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