Wax Worms, Anyone?

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Zoo InternQuest is a career exploration program for high school students. For more information see the Zoo InternQuest Journals. For more photos see the Zoo InternQuest Photo Journal.

Let’s imagine a trip to the Zoo. You pay for your ticket, slap on some sunscreen, and begin making your way through the park. You peer into all of the exhibits, and quickly find that something just isn’t quite right. There’s a deer carcass in the giraffe exhibit, fish in the anteater trough, and hay with the lions! Just like humans, animals require the proper nutrition to live healthily and happily. As the Zoological Society of San Diego’s head animal nutritionist, it’s Dr. Michael’s Schlegel’s responsibility to ensure that its residents are fed the appropriate diet for shiny coats, strong bones, and a happy disposition.

Dr. Schlegel has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and both a master’s degree and Ph. D. from the University of Michigan. As chief of nutritional services both at the Park and the Zoo, he manages a staff of 20 personnel, which includes warehouse managers, storekeepers, and food preparers. This team of twenty makes it possible to feed the vast array of animals their daily meal- over 600 individual plates of food each day!

Depending on the species, the contents of the meal can range from fruits and vegetables, to wax worms and crickets, or even an entire rabbit. Though it may seem like he’s playing chef, Dr. Schlegel’s job actually entails quite a bit of research. According to Dr. Schlegel, animals don’t need specific foods, but nutrients. He has to design diets to meet the animal’s nutritional needs, while working in such factors as availability, price, and the animal’s own individual preferences. After all that work, you can be sure that not just any food makes it’s way onto the animals’ plates. Each shipment is carefully inspected for what is called “biosecurity” to ensure that the food isn’t spoiled or contaminated. The perishables are then sorted and stored at low temperatures to maintain their freshness while the dry goods and hay are stacked in their own barns.

We actually entered one of the storerooms, lined with bins of fruits and vegetables, some of which I had never seen before. Among the array of foods was a mysterious fruit, which turned out to be a dragonfruit (right). I’ll have to say that it looked more like an alien pod than a dragon, more mutant than delicacy. But I’m sure that underneath it’s wildly pink skin lies a wealth of critical nutrients. And besides, who doesn’t like a little color in their diet?

Claire, Careers Team