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Kidspace: It's feeding time at the San Diego Zoo

By Paul D. Thacker / January 7, 2003

It's 4:30 a.m., and most people are still fast asleep in bed. But while the rest of southern California snoozes away their Tuesday morning, a handful of workers are busily preparing food for 4,000 animals at the world- famous San Diego Zoo.

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Delivery driver Martin Davila backs up to the loading dock of the Forage Warehouse and starts stacking boxes into the bed of a pickup. The boxes contain all sorts of goodies, including fruits and vegetables, fish, insects, meat, and squid. The zoo won't open to the public until 9, in another 4-1/2 hours, but Mr. Davila wants to make sure he drops off the food before the keepers start arriving at around 6:30 a.m.

"Some of these boxes can be pretty heavy," he says. Opening one of them, he looks inside and sees carrots, corn, broccoli, eggplant, cucumber, kale, and bok choy. A piece of tape on the box's side lets him know that this is for delivery to some herbivores, or plant-eating animals.

As Davila continues loading the day's chow, a quick look around would probably fool anyone into believing that this was just a typical restaurant kitchen. The food looks fresh and appetizing. Mark Edwards, the zoo's nutritionist, explains that it has to be.

"We use human-quality food," he says. "The same people that deliver to San Diego's finest restaurants [also] deliver to us." Well, almost.

The freezers hold stacks of boxes with herring, smelt, whitebait, and squid, which could easily make it onto any four-star menu. But mice?

"Mice get fed to things like birds and cats," a worker explains. Pulling a box of frozen rodents out of the freezer, she begins separating and bagging them for delivery. The mice come in two sizes: adult, for large animals, and "pinkies" for little animals.

"Let's go," says Davila. He's through loading up the truck, but swings by the grain house for a few other items. The grain house has pallets of bags with complete diets such as commercial cat and dog food. But the zoo also formulates its own diets.

"We're conducting ongoing nutrition research," says Mr. Edwards. "These diets are being constantly evaluated, and day-to-day husbandry of the animals generates information that goes into making better food."

The secret of the flamingoes' pink feathers

Working with a local pet food company, the zoo has come up with a number of complete diets: pellets and biscuits that contain all the calories, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals that they have determined an animal needs. Special chows made for the zoo include three herbivore diets, a pellet for cranes and other long-legged birds, and three types of primate biscuits. The pellets for the flamingos contain a special additive, roxanthin red 10, that gives them their gorgeous pink color. In the wild, flamingoes get this color from the small crustaceans they find in the mud.

The zoo also has its own carnivore diet, a special meat mixture with added vitamins and minerals that is fed to everything from lions and tigers, to foxes and eagles. In the past, the zoo used to buy horses and butcher them for the larger cats, but Edwards explains this has just become too difficult.

"Horse meat is not always available, and it's not inspected by the USDA," he says. "So we've gone to a beef-based diet, since cow meat is inspected. We actually have a higher-quality standard than normal pet food."

The carnivore food is made by a local pet food company and looks like a five-pound sausage. The freezer is filled with boxes of this meat, which is thawed and fed raw. The diets are evaluated by monitoring how they affect the animals' weight and blood composition, and the way the food passes through the animals.

"People don't realize this, but it's not only important what goes in the animal, but also what comes out," he says. "You can learn a lot from monitoring the stools, seeing, for example, how the fiber is handled."

Hungry lions roar in the distance

With the truck fully loaded, Davila heads out to make his deliveries. He will be stopping by 30 small kitchen sites scattered throughout the zoo. In the afternoon, he has more deliveries of hay and grain. It's still dark, and in the distance you can hear hungry lions beginning to roar. Yesterday was their fasting day, when they got only bones. Lions get the carnivore diet for five days, rabbits on the sixth day, and nothing but a bone on the seventh. The bones keep their teeth clean and the fasting helps to replicate their normal eating pattern in the wild.