Nutritionists to the Rescue

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

DSCN0948Nutrition is an essential element to the survival of any species and is often a vital component of keeping the Zoo’s collection happy and heathy. It is a new field within the Zoo world and has only been around for about the last 20 years. Luckily, for the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, three nutritionists on staff create specialized diet plans to suit the needs of each individual animal. This week, Interns were able to meet one of these nutritionists, Dr. Jen Parsons, Associate Nutritionist of the San Diego Zoo. Dr. Parsons mainly works at the Zoo, creating and constantly adjusting all of the animal’s diets as their needs change. Dr. Parsons has worked on many projects, studying exotic animal nutrition which in turn greatly impacts wildlife conservation.

Dr. Parsons researches the natural history of each animal in order to replicate each animal’s natural diet to the best of her ability. Dr. Parsons must closely look at what each animal eats, as well as its foraging and browsing habits. Nutritionists must be sensitive to the needs of each animal to ensure the animal is getting all the necessary nutrients found in their natural diet. If there are not enough nutrients, or perhaps the wrong nutrients are being ingested, the animal can become sick.

A large part of Dr. Parsons’ job is replicating the natural diets animals in a managed care facility would be eating in the wild. Dr. Parsons was involved in the desert tortoise project, where she replicated their natural diets in order to ensure a smooth transition when it came time to release the tortoises back into the wild. A desert tortoise’s diet in the wild is primarily grass which is very high in fiber. However, at the time of Dr. Parsons’ work, the only available pellet supplement was very high in protein, which wasn’t ideal for the desert tortoises. The desert tortoise care center was able to find a company that could make special pellets containing more fiber than protein. Since most of the tortoises were being released into the wild, Dr. Parsons had to make sure they were ready for the transition to the wild grasses. She gradually changed their diets from the pellet supplements to the grasses they would find in the wild, so as not to “shock” the tortoise digestive system.

Habitat destruction is a leading factor that limits what an animal eats and how much they eat. The bamboo forests in China are being cut down at an alarming rate, causing not only the habitat of giant pandas to rapidly decrease, but their diet and nutrition as well. One of the main challenges many nutritionists face is that not many people know about the field, so it is hard to acquire funding for more projects pertaining to preserving the natural habitat for nutritional purposes.

The nutrition of animals in the wild continues to be a struggle today. Since most people are not aware of the impact they have on the environment, they pollute the air and soil, and unknowingly support companies that tear down the environment. Staying informed of what happens in the natural world is a great way to lessen your contribution to habitat loss. Dr. Parsons is living her dream as she helps animals receive the nutrients they need in order to survive, not only at the San Diego Zoo, but for the animals in the wild such as the giant pandas and desert tortoises.

Isabella, Conservation Team
Fall Session 2014