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Peanut Butter and Crickets, a Zoo Feast

Nutrition: Critters eat everything from beets to 'bloodsickles' as caretakers strive to match what the animals would eat in the wild.


PROVIDENCE, R.I. — At zoos across the country, handlers go to great lengths to tailor dishes for the varied cravings of their animals.

The mongooses at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence like peanut butter and get especially frisky when searching, treasure hunt-style, for the treat smeared around their cage.

Caretakers discovered that cheetahs and bears go bonkers for "bloodsickles" -- bucket-sized Popsicles made with blood from ground beef and horse meat.

Feeders at St. Louis Zoo learned that their Hamadryas baboons, from the Arabian peninsula and North Africa, love to suck on fresh beets -- amusing their keepers to no end with mouths that appeared to be ringed with dark red lipstick.

Gone are the days when elephants would be tossed peanuts or monkeys would munch on bananas. Instead, animal feeding has evolved into a science as caretakers at the nation's 179 accredited zoos focus on nutrition.

"We have a responsibility to provide in every way we can," said Pat Sharkey, director of Roger Williams Zoo. "They're here at our request, and we want to make sure their stay is an enjoyable one."

The goal is to better match the animals' diets with the food they would eat in the wild and to present it in a way they'd find in a natural setting. The result: happier, more well-adjusted animals giving visitors a more authentic view into how they really are.

"You're always going to get people who come to the zoo and want to see the animal in a box, like a museum piece," said Barbara Toddes, a nutrition expert at the Philadelphia Zoo, America's first. "But the vast majority of people are better educated than that, and they really enjoy seeing the animals do what they normally do."

Toddes chairs the Nutrition Advisory Group, a research team with the American Zoo Assn. The group was formed in 1994 as zookeepers at the nation's 179 accredited zoos awoke to the value of nutrition in animals' food. They share advances in the field and recipes that work for finicky palates.

"There was still a lot of voodoo nutrition," Toddes said of feeding practices when the nutrition group was started. "It wasn't based on science at all."

Zoos began as the personal playpens of wealthy adventurers. They sprouted in major cities in America in the early 1900s. But they weren't viewed as refuges for endangered species, and as reproductive labs to rebuild threatened ones, until the 1950s.

Food is key to the conservation effort. Caretakers have noticed that animals with better diets are more likely to mate and reproduce, furthering the species and maintaining the genetic diversity that is at the core of a zoo's mission.

"Literally, all the medical science available to people are now available to animals in the zoo," said Michael Hutchins, the zoo association's director of conservation and science. "They really are privileged animals in a lot of ways."

Zoos spend $200,000 to $650,000 annually on food -- about 2% of a typical budget, according to an association survey last year. Feeding just one lion can cost nearly $2,000 annually. Most of the meals are uniform, but caretakers prepare dozens of specialized meals.

Workers at Fort Worth Zoo in Texas make 241 individual dishes every day in the industrial-sized commissary built last year.

Roger Williams, which opened in 1872 and is one of the nation's oldest, established a zoo commissary three years ago.

The zoo, next to Interstate 95, the busiest highway in the Northeast, rotates a three-person team that daily prepares 400 pounds of meat, grain and produce for 139 species. It's all fixed in a spotless room of stainless steel that would rival the cleanliness of a hospital. Employees dip the soles of their shoes in disinfectant before entering the kitchen.

There's fruit and other produce in Tupperware containers, garbage cans filled with crickets and containers with live mealworms.

Outside, industrial-sized refrigerators house horse meat, neatly packaged mice and rats, and lots of mackerel, squid and other fish.

Caretakers create, in some cases, elaborate mechanisms to challenge the animals to get their food -- and to keep them interested.

At the Tulsa Zoo in Oklahoma, schoolchildren were enlisted to make a 4-foot-tall papier-mache zebra that was filled with meat for the lions. Then, all watched in amazement as the big cats stalked the "prey" before attacking its neck and legs.

"They just grabbed it and ripped it apart," said Kip Siemens, the zoo's director of enrichment, special activities that stimulate the animals to behave as they would outside captivity. "It was like you'd see in the wild."

Some animals are picky eaters that require special servings.

Take Mia, for instance. The female tree kangaroo prefers kale over sweet potatoes. But the males, Paul and Bushwhack, love yams.

Christine Carlson, a caretaker from Newport, said she has become attuned to the animals' likes and dislikes. "It's sad because I dream about it," she said.

As nutritionists learn more about better diets, it seems that the animals are eating healthier than most people. Really, how many fat monkeys or cheetahs have visitors seen?

"They probably eat as healthy as kids with moms and dads watching their diets," Sharkey said. "If they could choose junk food, they'd do it."

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