How you can help feed a hungry zoo

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Do you love animals? Is a trip to the zoo one of your favorite weekend trips? How would you like to be the "parent" of one of your zoo animal friends? Many zoos around the country offer programs for people to "adopt" a zoo animal by contributing money. The adopted animal stays in his zoo home, while the money donated by the zoo parent helps to pay for the animal's food and care.

For example, at the Washington Park Zoo here in Portland, zoo nutritionists (who plan proper meals for the animals) have figured out how much it costs to feed each animal. Zoo parents agree to pay for an animal's food for one year.

Feeding a hermit crab or a gray cricket colony for a year costs adoptive parents only $5. Other animals have much bigger appetites. Packy, one of Portland's 10 elephants, eats 27 tons of hay, 18 tons of lettuce and carrots, 2 1/2 tons of special diet pellets, and half a ton of oats. It costs nearly $2,500 a year to feed Packy.

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Some children become zoo parents by saving allowance money. Others adopt animals through a gift from parents or friends.

School classes also adopt zoo animals. One class in the Portland area adopted a liama. Another school held a dance marathon and made enough money to adopt four animals. Classes often study to learn more about their animal. They also learn about zoos and the duties of the zoo keepers.

"The students feel a sense of responsibility in realizing that man has to appreciate and care for animals," says Judith Bierberie, who is in charge of the Washington Park Zoo Parents program.

Although many zoo parents are children and their families, retired people who enjoy visiting the zoo also adopt animals. And businesses pitch in to parent the animals with the biggest appetites. Two polar bears, which both eat about $2,000 worth of food a year, have been adopted by local companies.

Each zoo parent at the Washington Park Zoo is the only parent of his or her animal.

But there are other arrangements when an animal has already been adopted, or when an adoptive parent cannot afford high prices. For a donation of $15, elephant lovers can become a member of the Pachyderm Pack. And fans of the zany penquins can be part of the Penguin People by contributing $20.

Zoo parents get an official adoption certificate with the name of their animal plus a zoo parent design to transfer onto a T-shirt. Then their name is put on a plaque at the Washington Park Zoo.

The zoo also sends each donor a note explaining what his animal eats. The adoptive parent of a silkie chicken receives a card that says: "Your silkie chicken sups on game-bird feed and four-grain scratch."

Once a year, each zoo parent is invited to a special evening for a picnic supper and a behind-the-scenes tour. Zoo keepers show where the animals live, and they talk about the animals' everyday life.

Last year 362 animals were adopted, and this year many zoo parents renewed their adoptions. The annual food bill for all the animals at the zoo is $90,000. Zoo parents paid for $50,000 of that amount.

Some zoo parents get attached to their adoptees. One family that has adopted a pygamy goat in the children's area of the Washington Park Zoo likes to come visit the animal.

"They feel it's a part of the family," Judith Bieberie says. One Portland mother sponsored her children as zoo parents because she wants to teach them that "gifts can be intangible, and can go on giving."

If you're interested in becoming a zoo parent, you should contact your local zoo to see if there is an adoption program.

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