Words by Kaylee Dugan
Photos by Clarissa Villondo
WARNING: This post contains pictures of small dead animals. If that sounds upsetting to you, hit that back button or check out our cute behind the scenes story with the Small Mammal House.
D.C. is a magical place. There are corners of this city where you can experience things you would never get an opportunity to see anywhere else. Whether it’s the Kennedy Center putting on a breathtaking opera, or being able to revel in the awe of an exhibition like Renwick’s Wonder, our city is filled with amazing things. I don’t think anyone would disagree with me when I say the National Zoo is near the top of that list. The 160+ acre park is home to a large swath of animals, from the pandas that have captured the nation’s heart to the snakes that make up the reptile house, it’s easy to forget that the zoo doesn’t just run itself. Just like the Kennedy Center or our amazing museums, its restricted, employees only areas are just as fascinating and rich as the animals themselves.
In anticipation for this year’s Zoofari (grab your tickets here, folks) we’re combing BYT’s two favorite things, food and cute animals, and going behind the scenes at the zoo to learn more about the feeding process for D.C.’s most adorable residents. From fresh maggots to fruit and veggie bowls that are healthier than what we eat on a daily basis, the zoo’s animals are on highly researched and complicated diets that give an in depth look into the care that goes into keeping these animals happy and healthy.
When it comes to food, the Reptile Discovery Center might have a similar setup as the Small Mammal House, but once you get past the leafy greens and fruit, it’s a whole different beast. As biologist Matt Evans guides me through the labyrinthine like structure of the RDC, I can tell right away this behind the scenes trip is going to be a little more hardcore than the last. At least, it was pretty clear from the beginning that there were going to be a lot more dead mice.
Like the rest of the zoo, the RDC gets shipments from the commissary, which essentially functions as the main kitchen for the entire zoo. Once a week they get bags of leafy greens, fruits and frozen protein hunks. Whatever they need to keep the animals healthy. The similarities to the SMH end there. While mammals might get fed twice a day, many of the reptiles only eat once a day or sometimes once a week. Reptiles are also far more shy when it comes to their food. A mammal might start chowing down as soon as you put the plate in their exhibit, but reptiles don’t want to be watched.
Which makes things easier and harder for the staff and volunteers at the RDC. The smaller number of meals means they spend less time on feeding (which allows them to work on other things), but the reptile’s finicky nature also means it can be hard to tell when something is wrong with their diet. Keepers and volunteers have to be vigilante because reptiles wont show any signs of disease or illness until they’re almost dead, but skipping meals is a big warning sign. If any of the animals at the RDC skip three meals, they’re weighed and vets are contacted.
However, some reptiles also require a little more coaxing. As I watched a keeper prepare meals for the day, she explained that sometimes you can spend two hours trying to convince a baby snake to eat a mouse. Snakes can be especially difficult because they pick up infrared and have good sense of smell and taste, so they can get picky about the defrosted mice. The RDC also has to keep a whole host of different mice frozen in order to feed their large variety of snakes. You have fuzzy mice, which are the large adult mice most of us are familiar with, and pinkie mice, which are smaller baby mice that are used to feed smaller snakes.
Of course, not everyday at the RDC involves dealing with dead mice. For most of the animals, Monday, Wednesday and Friday are salad days. The commissary sends them a large bag of mixed leafy greens and everything gets chopped up and portioned by the team. Lizards usually get more fruit and bugs, while tortoises get a good helping of hay and pellets with their veggies. Geckos, on the other hand, get a mixture of bugs and a decaying fruit lollipop that the RDC melts into a paste. Like most animals, a varied diet is healthier than a stagnant diet, so the RDC switches around between cockroaches, crickets and other bugs depending on the day. Fruit (which is usually given as a treat) also changes depending on the season. For the animals that need to hunt (like dart frogs) the RDC will let loose live bugs (like crickets or fruit flies) in the exhibit. They call it broadcast feeding.
Of course, considering the amount of animals in the RDC, things can get a little more gnarly than that. Evans opens up one fridge door to show me it’s packed to the brim with frozen animals. Sure there are adult mice and baby mice, but there’s also bags of chicks, guinea pigs and even some full grown rabbits. The bunnies and guinea pigs go to their larger residents, like the anaconda, komodo dragon and crocodiles.
And the fun doesn’t stop there. Evans takes me into the basement, where there are small aquariums of fish kept for their aquatic snakes and hellbenders. He explains that while commissary is very helpful when it comes to storing the crickets and vegetables and things like that, they just don’t have the space to keep live fish, so it all stays on site. Into another room, there are mason jars full of fruit flies. They’re bread to be wingless, which makes broadcast feeding easier on the staff and the animals.
It’s obvious that Evans, who has been with the zoo for nine years, loves working at the RDC. As he takes me through the building, he talks about the variety of animals he gets to work with (some of which are incredibly endangered). He mentions the giant tortoises, who have their own distinct personalities, and the diverse line up of geckos, frogs and lizards he gets to see on a daily basis. The reptile house has a bad rep. It’s often seen as spooky or creepy, but it’s absolutely one of the coolest places in the zoo. You can’t miss it.
(Although, seeing a fridge full of frozen animals was definitely weird. I’ll give you that.)