Exotic palates, local food
July/Aug. 2013 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Megan Alpers
Photos by Rob Andrew
California farm fare is on the menu at the San Diego Zoo.
More online: Recipe and elephant cam
When Michael Schlegel arrives at work around 7 a.m., he has a busy day ahead of him—and more than 7,000 mouths to feed. As director of nutritional services for the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Schlegel and his 21-member team create and implement feeding plans for hundreds of species and subspecies at the two parks.
The San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park spend about a half-million dollars annually on produce. Many of the fresh fruits and vegetables come from California farms.
From pandas and chameleons, to pelicans and warthogs, Schlegel and his colleagues work closely with veterinarians and zookeepers to monitor the animals and ensure they receive the ideal balance of nutrients from their food—food that, in many cases, is grown or raised on California farms and ranches.
During a recent trip through a zoo warehouse, Schlegel noted a number of locally purchased ingredients for its residents, including carrots, yams, romaine lettuce, escarole, dandelion greens, napa cabbage and red leaf lettuce.
Michael Schlegel and Crystal Turchen, with the zoo's nutritional services team, discuss a meal for hornbills, birds native to Asia.
"A lot of the greens go to the primates, especially gorillas and orangutans, as a base because they are mainly herbivores in the wild," Schlegel explained. "We use a lot of carrots, not only for primates and some of our swine species, but also polar bears get quite a number of carrots."
California-grown avocados are a hit among the zoo's birds, including hornbills. In their native Asia, hornbills consume high-fat fruit during the breeding season, so the zoo introduced them to the avocado, readily available in San Diego. Oranges appear on the menu for parrots and macaws, as well as primates, which also receive strawberries and grapefruit.
From a food budget of roughly $2.5 million for both the zoo and safari park, about one-fifth is spent on produce. The zoo prides itself on the high-quality fruits and vegetables it is able to purchase from local farms and ranches. In fact, it makes no distinction between produce purchased for diners at the zoo's restaurants and produce purchased for the animals.
Lead Keeper Jane Kennedy delivers apples to a greater one-horned rhinoceros.
So, where's the beef? The zoo and safari park purchase 145,000 pounds per year of a customized beef-based diet for the meat-eating animals from a Southern California pet food company, as well as 576 tons per year of hay to feed to zebras, okapi, giraffes, gazelles, rhinos, kangaroos and other herbivores.
"Most of that (hay) will come from the Imperial Valley," Schlegel said. "That includes Bermuda grass, Sudan grass and alfalfa."
Also within zoo and safari park food warehouses are 800 tons of a dry feed compressed into pellets from a mill in Goshen to feed herbivores, and more than 800,000 mice from the Central Coast to feed a wide array of animals, from bat-eared foxes to owls and even alligators. Locally produced mealworms are destined for birds and reptiles, and nightcrawlers are fed to kiwis, a flightless bird native to New Zealand.
A serval, a medium-sized wildcat from Africa, receives a treat from a zoo employee.
Both herbivores and carnivores participate in special feeding events at the zoo, especially if it's an animal's big day.
"My team is very proficient in making ice cakes, especially for the pandas," Schlegel said, describing the blocks of ice filled with treats and formed to look like a decadent dessert. "For their birthdays, they get ice cakes that include bamboo and some of their training treats, such as apples, yams and carrots."
A birthday celebration at the safari park for one of the lions included an ice cake complete with blood and frozen rodents.
Emily Duax, a nutritional services assistant, prepares a supplemental diet for the greater one-horned rhinoceros.
But as with all good things, snacks and treats must be enjoyed in moderation. Schlegel said some of his biggest challenges on the job involve picky eaters.
"Sometimes you have to treat the animals like your children," he said. "They want to eat what they like and not necessarily what's good for them. So, for example, pelicans: They like trout, but we try to give them a variety of fish because each fish has a different nutritional makeup. By getting more of a variety, they get a more complete diet. We've been trying to train the pelicans to think of the trout as their dessert. So if they take their herring and their mackerel, and the capelin smelt, then they get their trout for dessert."
Developing a menu for picky pelicans and polar bears was not something Schlegel expected to do when he completed a Ph.D. in ruminant nutrition at Michigan State University. His original focus was on cattle, not exotic animals. Since joining the zoo's nutrition team, he has found more similarities among species than differences.
The zoo purchases many of its animal meal ingredients from California sources.
"I tell people that the animals are different, and certainly the food items are different, but the concepts are very similar," Schlegel said. He explained that nutritionists consult feeding plans developed for domesticated animals and tailor them to suit the unique needs of exotic animals.
He added that he and zoo veterinarians keep an eye out for the same potential health issues that their counterparts do on farms and ranches, including mineral deficiencies and digestive problems. Schlegel begins his day meeting with the veterinarians to include nutrition in special care the animals are receiving. The zoo grounds include a hospital, so Schlegel and his team can quickly assess new cases that may have come up overnight. Then he's on to more general rounds through the park to monitor animal health and conduct research into wild animal nutrition.
"I enjoy going out on the zoo or park grounds, seeing the animals and talking to the keepers about the animals," Schlegel said. "Besides myself, there are two other staff nutritionists. So between the zoo and the park, and having about 900 species and 7,000 to 8,000 animals, it keeps us busy."
Catering to exotic tastes
Only about 15 zoos around the country have full-time nutritionists like Michael Schlegel. So, how do they develop menus for animals originally from frigid, desert or mountain climates, now living in San Diego?
Schlegel and his team start by following guidelines for more common animals—cows, horses, dogs and cats—then tailor the diet to meet a specific animal's needs. They also collaborate with local pet or livestock food companies to develop custom feed for the zoo.
Is there a seasonal component to the zoo's menu?
In some ways, yes, Schlegel said. Some foods play a vital role in the life cycle of animals. For example, avocados are fed to birds and beef fat is fed to male polar bears to encourage breeding. Other foods, such as trout, are fed to pelicans to encourage them to raise healthy young. If pelicans don't receive a specific diet while rearing chicks, they won't feed their brood and the chicks won't thrive.
The elephant in the room
Not able to visit the San Diego Zoo or San Diego Zoo Safari Park? No problem. You can enjoy a number of real-time experiences online. For example, check out the "Elephant Cam" to watch elephants roaming in their habitat.
Eat like a giraffe
The San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park buy high-quality produce and meats from California farms and ranches—not only for the animals, but also for human visitors. Executive Chef Chris Mirguet of Albert's Restaurant serves a popular summer salad at the zoo that highlights local ingredients. "This salad has vibrant colors, and is fresh and light," he said. "You can create many variations based on your preference."