Words by Kaylee Dugan
Photos by Clarissa Villondo
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 things they’re showcasing.
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.
Kenton Kerns, a biologist at the National Zoo’s Small Mammal House is positively chipper at 9 a.m. on a Monday. Despite the fact that he’ll have to spend the first part of his day dealing with dumb questions (mine of course) and lots of photos, he shows us around the exhibits like a man who’s visiting the zoo for the very first time. There’s an undiminishable energy as he leads us through that enigmatic “Employees Only” sign and as we descend the stairs into the kitchen prep area he calls out, “This is where the magic happens!”
Unlike most zoo’s in the US, D.C.’s has two nutritionists on staff who constantly monitor and reevaluate their animal’s diets, tweaking and shifting as animals grow and adapt to their space at the zoo. They’re watching over 120 animals, 35 different species and 40 exhibits all at the same time. Although the zoo’s different houses had been hand crafting their own meals for a long time, in 2008 they decided to consolidate and create the commissary, a space where all of the animals meals are pre-portioned and then shipped to all of the different exhibits in the zoo. Giant gray bins go out to the exhibits each morning around 7:30 a.m. filled with all the meals needed for the day.
As Kerns explains, this gives keepers much more time to be monitoring and working with the animals, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a hand in the feeding process. Although the meals come packaged in individual tupperware, there is still plenty to do to get ready for the meals. Grains are soaked on premises, making sure they’re fresh. Live mealworms are given a block of calcium and are left to devour the block for three days, so that animals who eat the maggots aren’t just getting empty calories, they’re also chomping down on a calcium rich snack. Earthworms are kept dormant and docile in the fridge and are brought out right before feeding. Finishing and serving these meals now only takes and hour and a half out of a keeper’s day, but the science behind these meals is more complex than ever.
Because the animals have been placed in an environment where their predators have been eliminated, many of the animals at the zoo have easily doubled their lifespans, meaning that the nutritionists and the folks who assemble the meals at commissary aren’t just making meals for young, energetic animals, but also the zoo’s many geriatric animals. Some of these older animals have specialized problems like kidney and liver issues that require medication hidden inside of their food (which are often placed inside of things like peanut butter, grapes and banana flakes). The zoo also likes to have as many mixed species exhibits as possible, which makes feeding time all the more complicated when you throw in animal hierarchies. Lemurs are especially social and have a lot of alphas, while naked mole rats have more of a hive structure with a queen.
As Kerns pulls out a sand cat’s average lunch (which includes a dead rat) he explains that, besides bugs, animals that are meant to be eaten are often served dead to protect their animals. While a sand cat is surely capable of taking down a small white rat, it’s also possible that the cat would get bitten or injured in the process, which is something the zoo wants to avoid as much as possible.
Lucky for us, it’s about time to start feeding the naked mole rats and the tenrecs (both of which you’ll be able to hang out with at Zoofari). The naked mole rats (who are so ugly they almost veer into cute territory) get a meal predominantly made of corn, green beans and apples while the tenrecs are given a small scoop of grains. While the naked mole rats (who live in a two colony exhibit) take a little more coaxing to come inspect their food, the tenrecs (with their fun Game of Thrones inspired names) seem to be excited, diving right into the bowl.
We’ve rooted around in the kitchens of some of D.C.’s most famous chefs (some of which might just be serving up food at Zoofari), but nothing comes close to the care taken by the National Zoo. Their exhibits and programs may feel effortless, but that’s only because right behind the curtain there is a well oiled machine.