A Banquet for Beasts, Bunnies and Bugs – Feeding a Zoo

Posted November 9, 2017 by Barbara Henry

Feeding more than 500 animal species with a wide range of dietary needs is a big job. To make things more complicated, the Zoo has more than its share of picky eaters.  Even animals of the same species can have different dietary preferences and needs.  We have one red panda that will do anything for grapes and another that can’t eat them because they upset her stomach.  Our male camel Humphrey loves carrots, but his female companion refuses to eat them (she likes sweet potatoes).

That’s where I come in.  It’s my job as the Zoo’s curator of nutrition to know what each animal’s nutritional needs are and to procure the right foods for them.  None of our animals eat junk food or processed foods that contains impossible-to-comprehend additives. They get the very freshest whole foods.

The Zoo Gourmet

In the wild, animals must fend for themselves and find food on their own. Here at the Zoo, the task of ordering, preparing, and delivering food to all of the animal departments is the job of the keepers at the Commissary, a sort of in-house grocery store and kitchen. What does it take to feed all the animals at the Zoo?

Every morning the Commissary keepers deliver the food needed to each animal department. The afternoon is spent placing orders, unloading trucks, stocking shelves and getting the next day’s deliveries ready. Eggs, potatoes and carrots are cooked, the fish and meats are weighed and thawed, and the foods are sorted into boxes.

A Balanced Diet

Just like people, animals need a balanced diet. That balance is different for each animal, depending on whether it’s an herbivore, omnivore, or carnivore. The curator of nutrition makes sure each animal gets the proper nutrition by putting together a recipe, considering species and individual needs.

Apples and Beyond

In one year, the Zoo spends $265,000 on produce. That’s more than 250,000 lbs (685 lbs/day) of 32 different kinds of fruits and vegetables! The manatees alone eat more than 58 heads of lettuce a day!

Steak, Fish, and Crickets…Oh My!

In one year, the Zoo spends $207,070 on meat.  If you lined up all the mealworms end to end, it would stretch across 938 football fields![i]

Chow Down

Each year, over 300,000 pounds of more than 75 different types of grain, or animal chow, are fed to Zoo animals, including primates, parrots, flamingos, wolves, polar bears, goats, pigs, and others.

What the Hay?

The Zoo uses 6000-8000 bales of hay each year. If stacked on end, that would be more than 19 times as tall as the Willis (Sears) Tower![ii] The kinds of hay include timothy grass, alfalfa, and a mix of orchard grass and alfalfa. Between the 4 elephants total that live here, they eat 450 pounds of hay each day!

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is one of only 18 Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) facilities to have a post-graduate-degreed curator of nutrition on site. We are also fortunate to have a hard-working, dedicated Commissary staff that makes sure each animal area gets exactly the right quantity and types of food delivered to their areas daily.

[i] 1 mw=1” and 63,630 inches in a mile so we figured about 63.8 miles; 1 football field = 120 yds = .068 mi

[ii] we figured each bale is 4 feet long so if we use 7,000 bales then the length of all of our hay in one year it would be 28,000 feet and Willis Tower is 1,451 ft tall.