Nutrition for the Zoo and Beyond

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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 adventure here on the Zoo’s website!

Dawn_W4_picThis week, the interns met the “executive chefs” of the Zoo and Safari Park, the nutritionists. Director of Nutritional Services, Michael Schlegel, PhD., as well as Associate Nutritionist, Katie Kerr, PhD., showed us around the Zoo and explained the variety of diets they use for the animals. As nutritionists, their jobs mainly encompass managing diets for the animals and giving individual animals body condition evaluations, which is similar to the BMI scale for people. These body condition scores tell nutritionists, veterinarians, and keepers if the animal is underweight, normal or overweight. With this information, nutritionists and veterinarians learn if and what they need to change in an animal’s diet to keep it as healthy as possible, just like how people get check-ups, and doctors will often tell their patients to monitor and change their carbohydrate, sodium, cholesterol, sugar, etc. intake to try and avoid health problems.

Just like humans, it’s good for animals to have as much variety as possible in their diet, and everything in moderation. You wouldn’t want to eat only pizza every day for the rest of your life, right? Well, maybe… but it’s not good for you. To achieve variety, in addition to their daily mandatory diets, nutritionists provide enrichment food items, which the keepers can mix and match to find what the animal likes.

For primates, Dr. Schlegel and Dr. Kerr devised a point system, similar to Weight Watchers, to monitor the enrichment food items given to primates. The primates are given a certain allotment of enrichment points in their diet, and different items are worth different amounts of points, depending on their nutritional value. For example, a serving of grapenut cereal is worth 4 points, while a hard-boiled egg is worth 1½point. This way, primates can have unusual and tasty items, while also staying within their nutritional boundaries.

As you can see, Zoo diets aren’t necessarily restricted to specialty feeds and fresh fruit and vegetables. Carnivorous birds, or birds of prey, get dry dog food in their diets because it has essential nutrients that the birds need. One of Dr. Schlegel’s most memorable cases as a Zoo Nutritionist was the small and colorful beautiful sunbird. Two of the Zoo’s beautiful sunbirds had chicks, and for some reason, they weren’t eating their normal diet. Eventually, they realized that the birds ate spiders, so Dr. Schlegel was able to obtain spiders from a company that originally raised spiders for use in the pharmaceutical industry.

Instead of shrimp, because it’s very expensive, Zoo flamingos actually get carotenoid vitamins added to their diets. The specific carotenoid used by Nutritional Services is called lutein. Lutein helps the flamingos to achieve their signature pink color, but it is also used in the medical industry for human eye health. It’s known as the “eye vitamin,” and helps prevent eye diseases like macular degeneration and cataracts by acting as a sort of light filter, protecting eye tissues from sunlight damage.

Sometimes, zoo nutrition also overlaps outside of the Zoo. Some exotic feeds which were originally specially made for zoos and exotic animals have made their way into the pet food industry. For example, a specialty feed for crickets made for zoos is now used by many pet reptile owners to feed their crickets, which are in turn used to feed their reptiles.

As a cat owner, Dr. Schlegel advises fellow cat owners to feed their cats strictly cat food because it contains everything your cat needs, although he and his family may be a little lenient about their own cats’ diets. Although the Schlegel’s do feed their cats dairy products sometimes, Dr. Schlegel advises not to because domestic cats have lost the ability to digest lactose properly, a key ingredient in dairy products.

There’s no doubt that Dr. Schlegel’s and Dr. Kerr’s work is tailored to benefit zoo animals, but it also can carry over to our everyday lives. Like zoo nutritionists, it’s important to monitor your animals’ diets, because keeping your animals healthy and happy is quintessential. Certain food items may be very detrimental to your pet’s health, while others may be good for them, so always do your research and think before you feed.

Dawn, Real World Team
Week Four, Fall 2015