Elephants: Eat Your Vegetables!

Luti searches for food while wearing some!

Luti searches for food while wearing some!

That’s what we said to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s elephants when we introduced celery, lettuce, and cucumber into their daily diet. Some elephants were more easy to convince than others. For example, Msholo was used to different types of produce when he lived at the Lowry Park Zoo in Florida, and he happily munched on everything. Little Qinisa didn’t know whether to play with it or eat it!

We slowly introduced the produce into their diet by scattering it around the yards at different times of the day to get them used to the idea. Then during our training sessions, we would pair the produce with our alfalfa pellets to see if they would accept it. Sometimes, we would give some cucumber followed by a handful of pellets. Other times, we would put pellets in lettuce and wrap them like a burrito. Musi would eat it while Umngani would eat the pellets inside and let the lettuce drop out of her mouth.

With the younger elephants, we never know what response we are going to get! Luti would take lettuce and then drop it. Ingadze would take it and give it back to us, while Qinisa would just throw hers back at us. The elephants have their preferences too. They like cucumber the best, followed by lettuce and then celery. Emanti doesn’t take lettuce leaves, but he will take a whole head of lettuce and eat it.

Now the whole herd enjoys produce, whether it is scattered in the yard or used in training sessions. On a hot day, cool vegetables are always popular. We keepers always enjoy making things more enriching for them. Giving animals opportunities includes both meeting their nutritional needs and giving them choices. We learn something new about our elephants every day.

Laura Price is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Training Elephant Qinisa.


Wild Food vs. Zoo Food

Bai Yun enjoys a bamboo meal.

In the wild, one to five percent of a giant panda’s diet is non-bamboo food items. This may include wild fruits or berries, scavenged meat, and opportunistically caught small mammals. So why don’t we offer in-season berries and fruits to the San Diego Zoo’s pandas, just as they might snack on in the wild?

Keep in mind that the fruits these animals eat in the wild are very different from those that are cultivated for human consumption. In fact, wild fruits are much, much higher in fiber and lower in sugar than those we eat, since humans have bred cultivated produce for thousands of years to match our own tastes and preferences. We always strive to do our best to match each species’ wild diet, so we try to use fruits sparingly, mainly as a training tool or reward. Our pandas like apples, yams, and carrots just fine, so we usually stick to those as our “go-to” training items, though we do occasionally use applesauce and other extra-desirable foods to make sure they take any needed medications. But above all, we try to keep in mind that 95 percent or more of their wild diet is bamboo and copy that as closely as we can.

In addition to their bamboo, they also get a high-fiber commercial biscuit that supplies their vitamins and minerals. In the wild, of course, pandas don’t have access to such supplements, nor would they need them. Wild pandas are able to eat fresh bamboo growing straight out of the ground, full of all of the nutrients they need. We don’t have the luxury of growing a bamboo forest in the Zoo, so we have to cut their food from elsewhere and transport it. Just as vegetables are more nutritious for us when they’re fresh, bamboo loses some of its nutrients once it’s cut and transported, so we need to make sure we’re meeting all of the nutritional needs of our panda family.

Jennifer Parsons is an associate nutritionist for San Diego Zoo Global.


Zoo Hospital: Eat Your Food

Who knew babirusas could be such picky eaters?

Hey, Hospital Keepers! Can you get that animal to eat this food, please?

When animals arrive here from other facilities, they often are not used to eating what’s on our menu. During their quarantine period at the San Diego Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine, hospital keepers team with Nutritional Services staff to help animals transition to their new diets.

Upon arrival, each new animal is accompanied by a lot of paperwork from the shipping institution. The information is distributed to the appropriate staff here at San Diego Zoo Global. Such things as diet summary, enclosure description, husbandry management, enrichment ideas, likes and dislikes, photos and videos, medical records, and reproductive history are sent by the shipping institution. You can never have too much information when it comes to caring for animals!

Our nutritionists will have the animal’s most recent diet information, as well as the target diet we will be feeding printed up for the hospital keepers. Our goal is to get our newest resident heartily eating our diet by the end of the 30-day quarantine period. “They are currently eating this; we would like them to eat this. You have a month. Do your best. Go!”
The first week we usually feed our newest arrivals 100 percent of the familiar diet from the prior institution. Depending on the species, we try to offer a bit of our diet, too—a side order to their usual entrée, just to “test the waters.” Sometimes the animal chooses the novel item over their old standby, and within a week or two we have them completely transitioned. For other animals we need to go much slower, starting with 90 percent old diet and 10 percent new diet, then 75/25, 50/50, 25/ 75, and so on.

In many cases we are asked to transition new hoofed animals to our pellets prior to their release from quarantine. There are many ways we can go about completing this important task. We’ll offer one dish of the old diet and one dish of the new diet, or we’ll put the old pellets on one side of the dish and new pellets on the other side of the same dish. Sometimes we’ll mix the pellets together. If there are multiple items being offered, the food dish begins to look like a beautiful pie with wedges of different shades and textures.

One fun example was a pair of young babirusa boys that were in quarantine earlier this year. They were surprisingly stubborn about eating the new Zoo pellets. Pigs are usually easier to transition than most species because they like to eat. A picky pig is rare. So we were surprised when we would mix together the old and new pellets into one bowl, and these boys literally ate around the new Zoo pellets to get to their old stuff! After some brainstorming between keepers and nutritionists, we experimented and made an amazing discovery: if we lightly misted the new Zoo pellets with water and then “dusted” them with Crystal Light powder, the babirusa boys suddenly LOVED our Zoo fare! It then turned into the transition game of getting them off the “powdered pellets” and eating the plain pellets.

We monitor what amounts of food go in with an animal and then weigh and record everything that is left over the next day. These sheets are called “Ins and Outs” and give the animal care staff information to better understand what the animal is choosing to eat. We’ll also weigh the animal, at least weekly, to get a more accurate measure of how they are eating.

And then there is the poop. Yes, that funny topic from my previous post! We note the amount, the color, and the consistency. If a bird doesn’t look like they’ve eaten much out of their food pan, but there is a decent amount of poop on the ground, we know they’re eating enough. If a carnivore is transitioning between meat products, it might get the runs for a day. One indicator we use for a current group of deer is how many “shovelfuls” of poop we haul out every morning!

Gold-breasted starling

A gold-breasted starling just cleared quarantine this week. The bird came in eating “red pellets,” but we had to transition him to “yellow pellets.” This bird was healthy, and so was his poop, which—don’t be shocked—was red. Having the choice to eat red or yellow pellets, he would consistently choose the red. The next morning there would be nothing left but yellow pellets, not a single red one left in his food pan. So we started grinding the red pellets and dusting the yellow pellets. It took a bit, but the bird started picking up more of the yellow pellets, and we slowly phased out the red pellets. Soon his poop changed to a beautiful yellow, and we knew that he was successfully transitioned to his new diet—just another story about the fun we have here at the hospital and just a few more examples of how teamwork, communication, and patience help get the animals on the road from the hospital to Zoo grounds.

Kirstin Clapham is a senior hospital keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Zoo Hospital: The Importance of Poop.


Koalapalooza: Vets Share, Too!

I hope you were able to visit the San Diego Zoo January 16 through 19. If not, boy did you miss a good time! It was the Zoo’s first Discovery Days celebrating koalas with Koalapalooza (see blog, Koalapalooza: A Joey Is Named). Discovery Days events are a great new way for people to learn more about a targeted species.

During these times, keepers and researchers will share information about the species being featured and show some of the things we are doing to help save them and their habitats. And keepers from all around the Zoo share information about some of the animals they work with during an extended All About Enrichment weekend. Discovery Days are also a great time for the public to learn what they can do to help wildlife.

Horticulture staff explained the differences between eucalyptus species, the mainstay of a koala's diet.

Horticulture staff explained the differences between eucalyptus species, the mainstay of a koala's diet.

During these four days, it really isn’t just keepers and researchers sharing information, it’s a variety of departments; there are booths from horticulture, the Wild Animal Park, education, development, and of course my favorite, collection health.

During Koalapalooza, the Collection Health Department, which consists of veterinary services, nutrition, and wildlife disease laboratories, participated by having a booth where guests could speak with veterinarians, vet technicians, hospital keepers, nutritionists, and hospital administration. We had posters and information describing what we do, medical procedures playing on the computer and TV, digital images of some of the medical cases from the Zoo, plush animal bandaging, a vet truck demo, and remote drug delivery presentations.

A Zoo vet shows some of the equipment found on the specially equipped vet truck to Zoo visitors during Koalapalooza.

A Zoo vet shows some of the equipment found on the specially equipped vet truck to Zoo visitors during Koalapalooza.

Yvette Kemp is a senior hospital keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Read Yvette’s previous blog, Deiriai the Swamp Monkey