News last update:6 Aug 2012

Feeding zoo animals is often a puzzle

Kerri Slifka is one of the (only) 15 nutritionists in zoos throughout the USA. Her job is to make sure the carnivorous cats are eating a low carbohydrate diet and that the often-constipated spider monkeys are getting plenty of fiber in their meals.

Ms. Slifka and her staff at the Dallas Zoo are responsible for preparing 188 specialized diets for the thousands of animals at the zoo every day of the year. But while the zoo's commissary could easily be mistaken for a kitchen at a five-star restaurant, an eagle eye will spy the differences.

Zoo nutrition relatively new
The dietary needs of domesticated animals have been well studied (think of those aisles of Iams and Alpo) but the science of zoo nutrition is a relatively new field. The Toronto Zoo was the first in North America to employ a nutritionist in the 1970s, said Ann Ward, one of two nutritionists working now at the Fort Worth Zoo.

"What I always say is I get paid to make my best guess," said Ms. Ward, who has been at the Fort Worth Zoo for 13 years. "It sounds scary, but there aren't a lot of answers out there yet." There's no formal course of study to become a zoo nutritionist, and many do post-graduate work in human nutrition.

It's like a puzzle
Ms. Slifka has a bachelor's degree in animal science and a master's in human nutrition, and she's a member of the Nutrition Advisory Group, a scientific advisory committee of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums . She's taken all the classes required to be a registered dietitian – for the human kind – but they only work with one species and one digestive system. She said she'd rather research hundreds of species with many types of digestive systems.
"It's like a puzzle where I don't have all the pieces and the picture keeps changing," Ms. Slifka said.

Different digestive systems
Because zoo nutritionists know so little about what some zoo animals should be eating, they compare them to other species they know more about. An otter might not look like a cat, but they both need high-protein diets. And while you might think African colobus monkeys should eat more like humans, their digestive systems are more similar to cows. "You can't tell just by looking at them what they've got inside," Ms. Slifka said.

Related website:
Dallas Zoo

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