Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!
Dr. Jen Parsons is an Associate Animal Nutritionist at the San Diego Zoo and creates healthy diet plans for Zoo animals such as pandas, flamingos, Tasmanian devils, and koalas. We learned about what it takes to keep Zoo animals healthy, as well as what diet-related issues face many animals today.
Standing next to the “Flamingo Hotspot” inside the San Diego Zoo, Dr. Parsons explained that flamingos are pink because of the algae they eat that contain pigments called carotenoids. Many flamingos Dr. Parsons has worked with have had copper deficiencies. She fixes this problem by giving them diets high in copper, which also have the added benefit of getting rid of some types of parasites.
At the new Tasmanian devil exhibit in the Aussie Outback, Dr. Parsons pointed out the foods that are given to the Tasmanian devils. Bones to chew on are included in their diets so that the animals can mimic behavior they would have in the wild, such as chewing on whole carcasses. Without having the opportunity to chew, Tasmanian devils wouldn’t have the healthy muscles they need, they might get bored in their exhibits, and therefore would start showing unhealthy behavior. Chewing is also essential for healthy teeth.
Dr. Parsons revealed the reason why pandas always seem to be either eating or sleeping. Pandas have no microbes inside their stomachs. They can only digest about twenty percent of the food they eat. Because of this, they don’t have the energy to be very active in their environments. Pandas at the Zoo are on a bamboo diet, and occasionally reserve treats such as apples or yams. Nutritionists such as Dr. Parsons are careful to make sure pandas are getting the right diet for their unique stomachs.
Dr. Parsons brought interns inside the food preparation building at the Zoo. Known as the Forage Warehouse, it consists of a “produce side,” which is where food is prepared for herbivores, and a “meat side,” where food is prepared for carnivores. Interns, such as Tess, had to be careful to sanitize the bottoms of their shoes before entering so that outside germs were not brought to this biosecure area.
A chart hanging on the “meat side” of the Forage Warehouse lists different types of food served to carnivores and omnivores at the Zoo. Nutritionists and food preparers can keep track of which animals they need to feed and what they need to feed them. Most animals don’t eat the same thing every day. They are given a mixture of different kinds of food throughout the week in order to have a well-balanced diet.
Dr. Parsons showed interns what seemed to be a Zoo diets cookbook. It contained different recipes and directions for preparing food for each Zoo animal. Diets can change daily so it is important to keep detailed menus.
Each side of the Forage Warehouse includes enormous refrigerators for keeping animal food fresh. Dr. Parsons led interns inside the chilly produce refrigerator, which was full of boxes of bananas, carrots, cucumbers, lemons, and various types of lettuce. All produce inside these fridges is grocery store quality–yes, you could eat it too!
The food preparation area in the Zoo also includes grain room, where pellets, kibble, dog food, and other types of dry food items are stored. Dr. Parsons pointed out that kibble is very useful for some animals because it contains a large number of nutrients in a very small package. It is important to animal diets, however, so that nutritionists can ensure that animals are eating food multiple times a day as well as being entertained.
Dr. Parsons opened the trailer that is used for storing hay for the animals. She explained that the elephants use a large majority of the hay stored here because it is high in fiber. A special vehicle is needed to lift hay and deliver it to animal exhibits.
The last room Dr. Parsons showed us was the insect room, which housed tubs of mealworms and containers of crickets. In the future, Dr. Parsons might introduce more types of bugs to the Zoo’s menu such as termites, pill bugs, and flower beetles, all of which have a useful calcium and phosphorus balance.
Interns posed with Dr. Parsons after a successful learning experience. Dr. Parsons encouraged interns to have a network of people to help and advise them when looking for internships and job opportunities in the future. She said what she enjoys most about her job is the collaborative aspect of getting to work with a large number of brilliant, passionate people from keepers to veterinarians who are great problem solvers and always have the animals’ best interest at heart.
Juliette, Photo Team
Week Four, Fall Session 2013