What to Eat?

Zoo Intern Quest 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 jobs, and then blog about their experience online.  Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

joseph_pic_w4Zoo InternQuest got an exclusive look at the Zoo’s Forage Warehouse (the Zoo’s grocery store) from Associate Nutritionist, Dr. Jen Parsons. Every animal at the Zoo has a diet sheet deatailing what to eat each day, just like a meal plan for people.

Dr. Parsons creates and monitors the diets for all animals at the Zoo. She works with keepers and veterinarians, communicating with them about animal behavior changes and any other issues that might be related to their diet. Dr. Parsons also sits in on check-ups at the vet hospital to evaluate animals’ body condition. She may also analyze blood samples to check on mineral and energy storage. If diets need adjustment to take care of a particular animal’s needs, then Dr. Parsons goes over the diet and carefully calculates all of the components. Just like people, some animals don’t like the diets that are prepared to meet their nutritional needs. Dr. Parsons needs to make sure that the diets are nutritional but interesting enough that the animals will like it and want to eat it. Feeding animals at the Zoo is like feeding people at a restaurant where everyone wants specific things.

Making food for animals is like making food for little kids. It’s sometimes hard making a child want to eat their food, regardless of how healthy it is. Dr. Parsons told us that she has trouble getting animals to eat because of the color or shape of the food. Along with her fellow nutrionists, Dr. Parsons always manages to find a way to get the animals to eat a balanced diet. Similarly, parents find ways for their kids to eat vegetables, whether it’s adding food coloring or making food into cool shapes.

At the Forage Warehouse, where the Zoo’s animal food is stored, food safety is taken no less seriously than at a restaurant. Dr. Parsons informed us that she’s been through a restaurant food safety course to ensure she understands how food is prepared. Like the human food industry, the Zoo’s takes great care to prevent food borne illnesses and cross- contamination. The Forage Warehouse is a great example of this: the door has a sign stating it is a “BIOSECURE AREA” and all people who enter the building are required to step in a footbath to clean bacteria and germs from their shoes. Further, the warehouse is divided into two sections, half designated for meat preparation and the other half for produce. Food safety for animals at the Zoo is just as important as food safety for humans.

We can learn from Zoo nutrition and it can translate into how we feed our pets. For example, it’s fairly common for domestic and exotic cats to develop kidney problems. Jama, the North Chinese Leopard, is currently on watch for kidney problems due to his old age. As the cat owners out there know, this can make dietary choices tricky because a lot of cat and dog food can include corn and processed meat. When a cat’s kidney function isn’t as effective, it’s important to lower the amounts of protein in their diet. Jama being a leopard means his diet has high level of protein. The Zoo’s nutrition team came up with a solution. Jama was to get brown rice mixed in with his meat, plus a vitamin that helps his kidneys. Just like providing our pets with healthy diets, feeding the animals at the Zoo is far more complicated than opening a can of cat food.

Whether you’re eating at a restaurant, dealing with picky eaters such as young children, or feeding your cat, our nutritional challenges have a lot in common with the animals at the Zoo! Dr. Parsons and her nutrition team are really important to the Zoo because they help maintain healthy diets in order for the animals to live long fulfilling lives. When animals are healthy, it increases their breeding potential which is overall positive especially for species of concern.

Joseph, Real World Team
Week Four, Fall Session 2013