Mon Jan 1, 2007 5:26 PM ET
By Jonathan Oatis
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Shopping list: 750,000 pounds (340,000 kg) of grain; 100,000 pounds (45,000 kg) of meat; 10,400 cases of mixed fruits and vegetables; bees.
These are just a few of the ingredients for a year’s meals to feed the elephants, big cats, bats, birds, and other beasts at New York’s zoos.
More than 4,500 animals from more than 500 species are on display at the 265-acre (104-hectare) Bronx Zoo, the largest metropolitan zoo in the United States. It is the flagship of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs most of the city’s zoos.
In addition to Bronx Zoo, the society feeds a wide variety of creatures at Manhattan’s Central Park Zoo, the New York Aquarium, the Queens Zoo and the Prospect Park Zoo.
For the Siberian tigers at the Bronx Zoo’s Tiger Mountain, the main course is a commercial big-cat chow made of horse meat and nutrients.
Their keepers take a five-pound block of the stuff, divide it into meatballs nearly the size of tennis balls and put them on plastic sticks about 1-1/2 feet (0.5 meter) long.
As a small group of visitors watched recently, wild animal keeper Kelly Wallis carefully offered Sasha, a male tiger more than 8 feet long, a meatball on a stick, pushing it through strong plastic mesh. The big cat opened his jaws and took the meat off the stick.
“No one ever goes inside with these tigers,” Wallis’s colleague, Michelle Medina, told spectators.
The tigers, fed five times a day, also get knucklebones as a treat; they gnaw the meat off the bones. At the end of a feeding, they get a piece of rabbit to signal that meal time is over.
“That’s his dessert,” Medina explained.
The Bronx Zoo has a central commissary that delivers food to kitchens scattered around the facility. But the 700 birds at the zoo have a central kitchen, which makes deliveries around the park.
The kitchen has sinks, a big metal work table, industrial metal shelves, a big scale and a large gas burner. In a corner, a large heap of kale waits to be sliced and diced. Two long whiteboards above the work table show delivery schedules and recipes for such dishes as “hornbill meatballs.”
The kitchen makes 20 basic diets, which can be tweaked for the 200 species of birds at the zoo. This includes a 12-ingredient mix of beets, blueberries, other fruits and vegetables, nutrients and vitamins dubbed “bird salad.”
For the bee-eating birds, the zoo has a bee hive on the kitchen’s roof where their food is raised.
For the birds that eat crickets, mealworms or bees, the live food is not a complete diet, especially when it comes to the calcium that helps build healthy bones and eggs, said Mark Hofling, assistant supervisor of ornithology.
So, the kitchen feeds the insects vitamins to make them more nutritious — a procedure called “gut loading” — and puts calcium carbonate dust on the crickets before giving them to the birds, Hofling said.
Because some tropical birds are better at extracting iron from their food, the kitchen found it had to cut back on that nutrient for them.
“We were overdosing our birds of paradise,” said Hofling, who was a “chef” in the bird kitchen for years before his current job.
The most unusual birds in terms of diet, he said, are the bee eaters, such as the white-throated bee eaters from Africa. They eat bees and other insects on the wing, grabbing them out of the air, then settling on a branch to eat their catch.
Filming these bird in action showed that “they remove the (bee’s) stinger with a head flip that is too fast to see,” Hofling said.
How an animal eats can be as important as what it eats. “We try to take into account an animal’s nature when we’re feeding them,” said Hofling. Some birds, for example, catch insects as part of a mating display Hofling termed “dinner and a movie.”
Linda Corcoran, assistant director of communications for the zoos, said zoo keepers also have to figure out what animals don’t eat, to keep them from wolfing down all the plants that are part of a display.
At the World of Reptiles, snakes, lizards, frogs, turtles and tortoises eat — among other things — rats, mice, fruits and vegetables.
“Rats and mice are a whole food. They’re really nutritious” because their bones contain the calcium needed by the animals that eat them, said Jennifer Pramuk, curator of reptiles.
Also on the reptile menu: wax moth larvae. “They have a lot of fat in them,” explained keeper Joe Abeni.
At one point, 45-pound (20-kilogram) pigs were procured for a python at the World of Reptiles. One pig would keep the python fed for a month, said Pramuk.
And then there are the cobras. How do you feed a cobra?
“Very carefully,” Corcoran said.