By KATIE MENZER – The Dallas Morning News
10:23 PM CDT on Tuesday, April 10, 2007
A monkey’s biscuits aren’t monkey business.
Kerri Slifka should know since she’s had to taste-test the vitamin-fortified treats designed for primates.
“Yes, I have tried monkey biscuits,” said the Dallas Zoo’s first curator of nutrition. “Sometimes, we nutritionists do weird things. The apple ones, they have real apple in them, but they don’t taste like apple – ugh.
“If they made a chocolate-flavored monkey biscuit, I would be good.”
Dallas Zoo animal keeper Marshall Keaton reaches for a handful of apples that will be used in an animal’s meal. The zoo’s nutritionist and her staff prepare 188 specialized diets for the thousands of animals at the zoo. As one of only about 15 nutritionists at zoos nationwide, it’s Ms. Slifka’s job to make sure the carnivorous cats are eating low carb, Boris the lion has had his five-pound rabbit and the often-constipated spider monkeys are getting plenty of fiber.
Ms. Slifka and her staff are responsible for preparing 188 specialized diets for the thousands of animals at the zoo every day of the year, as no one wants to be around the day after the zoo animals aren’t fed, they joke.
But while the zoo’s commissary could easily be mistaken for a kitchen at a five-star restaurant, an eagle eye will spy the differences.
Near the commissary’s stock of fresh spinach, quail and rabbit sits a bag of frozen rats. The pantry has peanut butter and calcium-fortified crickets. There’s also birdseed, cat food, bananas and Ensure – good for the creaky bones of many species.
The dietary needs of domesticated animals have been well studied – think of those aisles of Iams and Alpo – but the science of zoo nutrition is a relatively new field.
The Toronto Zoo was the first in North America to employ a nutritionist in the 1970s, said Ann Ward, one of two nutritionists working now at the Fort Worth Zoo.
“What I always say is I get paid to make my best guess,” said Ms. Ward, who has been at the Fort Worth Zoo for 13 years. “It sounds scary, but there aren’t a lot of answers out there yet.”
There’s no formal course of study to become a zoo nutritionist, and many do post-graduate work in human nutrition. Ms. Slifka has a bachelor’s degree in animal science and a master’s in human nutrition, and she’s a member of the Nutrition Advisory Group, a scientific advisory committee of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
She’s taken all the classes required to be a registered dietitian – for the human kind – but they only work with one species and one digestive system. She said she’d rather research hundreds of species with many types of digestive systems.
“It’s like a puzzle where I don’t have all the pieces and the picture keeps changing,” Ms. Slifka said.
Bags of frozen mice and ground meat lie on a cutting board in the Dallas Zoo’s kitchen. The zoo also keeps quail, peanut butter and calcium-fortified crickets on hand. Because zoo nutritionists know so little about what some zoo animals should be eating, they compare them to other species they know more about. An otter might not look like a cat, but they both need high-protein diets.
And while you might think African colobus monkeys should eat more like humans, their digestive systems are more similar to cows.
“You can’t tell just by looking at them what they’ve got inside,” Ms. Slifka
But she also has personal taste to account for when preparing the zoo’s animal menu.
Boris the African lion likes his rabbit once a week in combination with his other food, but his partner Cuma turns her snout up at bunnies.
“She gets quail,” Ms. Slifka said.
The zoo’s aging cheetahs have gotten finicky in their old age, so they’re now getting their favorites – chicken and shank bones.
But peanut butter is the common denominator among most of the zoo animals.
Everyone likes a dollop of Jif, which makes it a great way to administer medicine to ailing elephants or under-the-weather warthogs.
“A peanut butter sandwich can hide anything,” said Ms. Slifka.
At the Fort Worth Zoo, the primates seem especially fond of medicine hidden in cran-raspberry juice concentrate.
That’s not surprising, said Ms. Ward, since the concentrate tastes a lot like the grape-flavored cough syrup.
You know, the stuff your kids love.
Does that mean you’re raising a house of monkeys? Well, you’ll have to decide.
## MICE & WAX WORMS ##
Amount of food fed to Dallas Zoo animals monthly:
Baby mice (frozen)
All fish combined
SOURCE: Dallas Zoo