Zoo Ambassador Franette Armstrong is taking us backstage in this new blog series.
Iron Chefs step aside…your challenges are nothing compared to the daily mission of feeding over 400 animals of 160 different species two to three meals a day.
And you think combining tripe with chocolate is a problem? Try satisfying omnivores who need a dozen different foods in different amounts plus nutritional supplements and snacks!
Chris Angel, primary commissary keeper, demonstrates the three different ways fish is cut up for different birds who need it to resemble what they’d find in nature.
Chris Angel is one of a team of commissary keepers who are in charge of making all this happen. The commissary team translates the requirements of the Zookeepers into orders from suppliers and then makes sure every area of the Zoo has exactly what they need when they need it. Oh…and they have a food budget to worry about, just like any of us.
Chris’ background? After college he learned management in a factory and butchering in a meat department and volunteered for us. Then he entered the Zoo’s Internship program and before he knew it…he was on staff.
Career advice: “Degrees are valuable, but so is experience. My advice to anyone wanting a job here is to get involved with volunteering,” he said. “Don’t give up. Just keep on coming.”
Two full- and two part-time staff, plus volunteers and interns, work multiple shifts preparing the food every single day of the year. Yes, even Thanksgiving and Christmas
To give you a sense of how complex the diets of our animals are, check out this food prep schematic for our birds:
The colors in the chart represent trays and for each tray there’s a list of ingredients ranging from “Flamingo Fare” or “Pretty Bird” to fresh fruit and cooked vegetables. Some require a little romaine lettuce or meat. What turns Flamingos pink? Beta Carotene from shrimp in their food.
Megan Frye, Night Keeper, prepares the trays for birds according to the detailed schematics.
This is where the bird trays end up...in one of our many aviaries.
Picky Eaters…and Keepers
The Zookeepers help design the animal diets in collaboration with our veterinarians and Animal Care management staff. Once a diet is set, all three have to be involved in any changes to it. When the ingredients are finalized, the Commissary takes over and is responsible for obtaining all the food and nutritional supplements.
“A third of all the animal food is prepared here in the Commissary. The rest is prepared at the animal enclosures from the ingredients we supply,” Chris explained. “The hardest part of our job is not making the food, it’s satisfying the high standards of the animals and their Keepers.”
This is one meal for five Tigers. Animal Management staff and volunteers will divvy it up into individual servings.
Take an Elephant’s diet as an example: they mostly get hay and “browse” (leafy branches) but also get four buckets of chopped produce each day. The Keepers spread most of the food around the exhibit to give them the challenge of finding it.
Everything—even lettuce-- has to be cut to a predetermined size so it takes the animals longer to find and eat their food.
The Zoo keeps two weeks worth of essential supplies on hand at all times, just to be sure the animals won’t go hungry in an emergency. Beyond that, just-in-time orders are placed with local feed stores, and produce and veterinary distributors who, in turn, stock a supply of what we are going to need so that they have it when our orders arrive.
In the Animal Commissary there is an entire wall of kibble bins plus huge jars and barrels of food like birdseed and popcorn (no butter or salt and used only for snacks).
A big part of our animals’ diet is fresh fruits and vegetables and nothing less than human-grade will do. “If we wouldn’t eat it, they don’t get it,” Chris said.
To help meet the ongoing need for fresh produce we rely heavily on donated food. Grocers like Safeway, US Food Service, and AL Lunardi and Sons contribute hugely along with Niman Ranch and Prather Ranch. In addition, growers, hunters, fishers and home gardeners donate boxes of meat, bones and fresh fruits and vegetables daily.
Volunteers sort the food and store it in coolers or freezers until its needed. Our Chimps get apples, and oranges plus three other fruits like berries and melon. Elephants get potatoes with their fruit.
Even California Fish and Game and Caltrans get into the act when they find a newly killed deer or turkey. “As sad as that sounds, animals like our Tigers and Hyenas need a variety of hoofstock and large bones.” At least this valuable food doesn’t go to waste.
We never take predator animals from these sources, however, because they can carry bacteria and viruses our Lions and Tigers are susceptible to and they are more likely to have been poisoned. Safety first.
Our utensil board rivals the famous Julia Child’s, though she probably didn’t have hacksaws on hers.
Yes, even Zoo animals appreciate a treat or a snack, and just like kids, they enjoying playing with their food. An important but fun job of the Commissary staff and Zookeepers is coming up with new ways to stimulate the senses and appetites of our animal residents.
“You wouldn’t want to eat the same thing everyday, and neither do our animals,” says Chris.
Popsicles are a huge hit with the apes, lemurs and elephants. Sun bears love to scoop peanut butter out of the bottom of jars with their long tongues, so we volunteers bring our leftovers in for them.
Our elephants will spend hours licking a popsicle like this one that’s made of fruit juice and then stuffed with fruits and kale. Once out of its container, the popsicle on its embedded rope will hang from a tree branch.
Out in nature food has to discovered or caught, so we try to bring some of that challenge into the animals’ daily lives. Keepers hide snacks or intriguing herbs in cardboard tubes. Interns and volunteers dye berries and grapes different colors and freeze them to spice up dinner trays.
The snack bar section of one of the freezers is home to some strange- looking treats. The ones with the ropes are for animals without hands.
These carrot popsicles will soon make an Otter or Meerkat a happy camper.
Chris purchases exotic bird kibble, Marmoset Jelly and other prepared foods that are not easily replicated in our kitchen so that every animal’s dietary needs are met. Even ground beef comes from a veterinary food distributor because our tigers and lions not only require the meat, but also parts that human hamburger doesn’t contain. The whole point is to closely replicate their diet in the wild.
Animals such as our Boas, which in nature consume live prey, are fed frozen mice here because catching food on the move is dangerous to the predator—it fights back—and we don’t want our animals injured. We defrost it for them before serving time—cold-blooded animals want warm food.
Live mealworms, crickets and goldfish are the only exception to the fresh and frozen meat we serve. They provide exercise and stimulation as well as nutrition to our otters, frogs and insects.
But this is not to say that people-food isn’t on the menu. In addition to their fresh food, our animals are given fig newtons (they are great for hiding vitamins and pills), gelatins, baby food, powdered sports drinks, spices and many other packaged foods you would recognize on your own pantry shelves.
Does this look somewhat like your own pantry? These foods are expensive so some of our wonderful volunteers go shopping weekly with their own money just so the animals can have them as treats.
Want to Help Feed the Animals?
As you can see, feeding time at the Zoo is a community effort: It requires a huge quantity and variety of ingredients all the time and we rely on donations.
The Commissary will gratefully accept donations that are pesticide free.
If you are a fisher, hunter, or butcher, we may be able to use your fresh or frozen overstock and raw bones.
If you’re an organic farmer, gardener, arborist or grape grower—or have friends who are—the animals would love your excess vegetables, fruits and nuts. The one thing none of our animals will eat is lemons and limes, which is a shame since so many of us have trees loaded with them.
If you are interested in donating give us a call Chris Angel at 510-632-9525 x 215.
Someone carved and donated a pumpkin “condo” to make our Meerkats’ day.
Flowers in your yard? Pick a bouquet for our animals. Most of our animals would love your pesticide-free nasturtiums, roses, and dandelions.
Pruning your shrubs? We can take certain types of branches and leaves for our Giraffes, Goats and Zebra. Go to this page or call to find out if yours are edible.
Where to take donations? Small amounts can be dropped at our front gate. Even a few peaches or carrots are appreciated. For larger donations (bin size or more or frozen food), call Chris Angel at 510-632-9525 x 215 to arrange a drop-off.
We thank Steve Goodall, a local nature photographer, for volunteering to take, and allow us to use, the photos for this article.