Chief Chef at the Zoo

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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.

Catering for any amount of people can be a pretty hard job. Imagine planning a menu for over 4,000 individuals! That’s exactly what Michael Schlegel, Ph.D. does as the director of nutritional services for the Zoological Society of San Diego. With a lot of help from his associate nutritionist, Jennifer Parsons, and the food prep staff at the Zoo and Park, Dr. Schlegel is in charge of formulating the diets for all of the animals at the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park. Since his job entails working with all of these species, Dr. Schlegel must persistently research new situations as they arise. “Something new is always going on,” he told us. “It’s crazy hard.” He has to deal with sloths that won’t eat, gazelles that need to gain weight, orphaned cheetah cubs, the list goes on and on. However, the research that is required is Dr. Schlegel’s favorite part of his job. He explained that he is a “math-person”, and that he loves to conduct research and study data in order to learn new things.

lizarrrrrrdddddddBut math isn’t the only thing that goes into doing his job. Dr. Schlegel also needs to keep up on his physics and chemistry. While this may seem a bit unexpected, in actuality it is a very important part of his job. You see, food isn’t the only way animals receive the nutrition they need. Take Komodo dragons, for instance. If Komodo dragons don’t get enough vitamin D, they run the risk of developing metabolic bone disease, which weakens their bones. However, Dr. Schlegel can’t simply feed these reptiles vitamin D, as then it will not be transferred into their bloodstream. So if Komodo dragons don’t digest this vitamin, then how do they get it? The answer lies in sunlight. The UVB rays from the sun triggers a reaction that causes the release of vitamin D into the animal’s bloodstream. This is where the chemistry comes in. The physics occurs when Dr. Schlegel measures how intense the UVB rays are that are hitting the Komodo dragons, and if enough of the rays are coming through the glass of the enclosure.

This definitely seems like a stimulating career! The most exciting things that Dr. Schlegel has been able to do through his job include bottle-feeding cheetah cubs and being present at the weekly exams of giant panda cubs. Very few careers allow you to have these amazing and intellectually stimulating opportunities. It was a long road to get to this cool place at the San Diego Zoo. Dr. Schlegel received his bachelor’s degree in animal production (which basically means commercial farming), and then went on to get his master’s degree and Ph.D. at Michigan State University in beef cattle nutrition. He became the associate nutritionist at the Wild Animal Park in 2001, and then worked in nutrition at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, until 2005, when he came back to the San Diego Zoo as the director of nutritional services. Physics, chemistry, animal behavior, and a little bit of catering savvy all come together to make Dr. Schlegel’s job unusual, challenging, exciting and never the same thing twice.

Becky, Careers Team