Table for…4,000!?

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

Imagine having to cook dinner for a party of 50 people. That’s a big task to take on, but what if instead of 50 people you had to prepare a meal every day for 4,000 hungry animals? Sounds impossible, but that’s what the 11 nutritional services staff at the San Diego Zoo do on a daily basis! Interns had the opportunity to meet with Deborah Lowe, a Supervisor with Nutritional Services at the San Diego Zoo. She gave us a tour of all the different warehouses used to store food and of the kitchens where the animal diets are prepared.

The first building Ms. Lowe showed our intern group was the forage warehouse. She explained how they keep the meat and produce on opposite sides of the kitchen to prevent cross-contamination. Ms. Lowe told us that they use year-round produce most often, like apples, carrots and yams. The Zoo has produce delivered 4 times a week! All produce delivered to the Zoo is the same quality produce that is delivered to schools, hospitals and grocery stores. There were boxes everywhere and each box weighs 30 to 40 pounds. That’s a lot of fruits and veggies!

After we escaped the cold of the produce fridge, we ventured into the meat fridge, which was even colder. The Zoo uses different types of meat, such as pork and beef. The one meat they don’t use is chicken because raw chicken is more likely to have salmonella. The Zoo does feed chicken eggs to some of the birds of prey and reptiles though. The chicken eggs are hard-boiled through unlike the chicken meat which is raw. Besides pork and beef, there was an array of different fish, such as mackerel and herring. Generally bears receive fish as a treat, but some birds of prey are given fish as their main diet. The unappetizing part of the menu, unless you’re a snake, included frozen rats and mice.

Once we had enough of the cold, we walked into the main food prep area. There were mixers, blenders and a band saw. We were all very curious for the use of a band saw, and Ms. Lowe explained to us that the band saw is used to cut bones for the carnivores and bamboo for the panda cakes. For the past 15 years, the Zoo has been commemorating panda births at the Zoo with a special panda ice cake on their birthday. She told us that they use the band saw to cut shapes and numbers out of the bamboo. When you think of baking a cake, you usually picture eggs, milk, sugar and flour, but the Zoo makes panda cakes by freezing fresh fruit and veggies in some filtered water. Once that freezes, they mash up some fruit to make an icing for the cake. To give the cake a little extra flavor, the nutritionists add in some honey. If you come to the Zoo on panda cake day, be sure to say hi to the birthday bear!

Our insight into Zoo nutrition was close to an end, but we had a few more stops on our tour. One of those stops was a look at the forage grain room, where the Zoo keeps all of the dry food. As we walked into the building, the smell of pet food wafted through the air. Lots of animal pellets were piled high. The Zoo buys dog food, but not for man’s best friend. Nutritionists mash up dog food for the birds. They put it in the bird feeder and mix in other treats like fruits, vegetables and psittacine pellets, which are a type of bird food. The reason they give dog food to the birds is because it’s a good source of iron.

Grains aren’t the only dry foods animals eat. Hay is a staple for the hoof stock, and the hay barn was filled with piles and piles of Bermuda, alfalfa and Sudan hay. In addition to being used as food, hay is also used as bedding for some animals, just like at a stable. Next to the hay barn was the insect storage area. It was filled with mealworms, waxworms and crickets. The birds eat more than 100,000 bugs a week! That’s a lot of crickets jumping around.

The nutritionists play an important role in keeping the Zoo running efficiently and so do the individuals who are preparing the food. In addition to preparing food for all those hungry animals, nutritional staff need to budget the amount of money they can spend per animal. On average, the Zoo food budget is $1.5 million per year! The Zoo spends $1.03 on each animal daily. Imagine having to plan your party with that budget per guest. We had an amazing day and gained a new respect for what it takes to feed all 4,000 animals at the Zoo!

Celine, Real World Team
Week Two, Winter Session 2015