The fall holiday season is approaching fast. Over the next few months, many of us will enjoy special time with our families, friends, and coworkers at parties and holiday feasts.

For many people, the holidays are a time marked by the preparation and sharing of foods that are special to us. Maybe we have a special recipe we pull out only for holiday occasions, a dish that requires a great deal of time and care, or a food tradition that requires the help of many people. Here at the zoo, the animals may not celebrate the holidays, but our dedicated animal care staff makes sure that no matter what time of the year it is, each and every animal’s daily meals are catered specifically to its individual needs.

How exactly do they do it?

Preparing food for our animal residents takes up a large amount of time each day for our animal care staff. With 400-plus animals currently calling the zoo home, that is a lot of diets to prepare! Every animal in the zoo has its very own diet sheet, detailing exactly what kind, and how much food they receive each day. The sheet even includes details such as whether fruits and vegetables should be peeled or not, if seeds can be left in or should be removed, and special instructions about how food should be cut or portioned for feeding. Every diet is made fresh each day.

So, by the numbers, how much food do the animals at the zoo eat? Let’s take a look:

• 36 different kinds of specially formulated animal feeds, seeds and grains;

• 25-plus different kinds of fruits and vegetables;

• 6,100 pounds of feed per month;

• 2,000 pounds of produce per month;

• 2,800 pounds of raw meat per month;

• 100-plus pounds of raw fish per month;

• 932 prey items such as rats, mice and rabbits per month;

• 116 beef bones per month to keep teeth healthy and strong;

• 12,000 insects such as mealworms, crickets and waxworms per month;

• 5,000-plus pounds of fresh browse (leaves and branches) per month;

• Thousands of pounds of grass hay and alfalfa every month;

Getting the proper diet each day is extremely important, especially for our animals that are on special diets for health reasons. Some animals receive specialized diets to help manage conditions such as kidney disease, iron storage disease, or other issues. All residents are on special diets that help them maintain a healthy body weight and condition. Our staff works hard to ensure that every single animal receives a proper, well-balanced diet that is specific to each individual’s needs. Being fed things that aren’t on their diets can have serious consequences for some of our animal residents and may cause them to become very sick or even die. It can also lead to lifelong conditions that impact their ability to lead normal lives.

A great example of this is waterfowl (swans and ducks), which are often fed stale bread by well-meaning people wanting to make sure they have enough to eat. Like people, ducks and swans find bread tasty and will gobble it up if it’s available. Unfortunately, bread offers little in the way of nutrition to waterfowl, whose normal diets consist of aquatic plants, worms and insects. High-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods like bread cause waterfowl to develop a condition known as “angel wing,” where the wing develops improperly due to poor nutrition and prevents the bird from ever being able to fly.

While angel wing can be reversed in ducklings if their diet is changed to one that is correct for waterfowl, angel wing is incurable in adults and confines these birds to a life on the ground. Here at the zoo, we offer our waterfowl a carefully formulated diet that keeps them healthy and happy. We even make part of the diet available in feeders around the duck pond so guests can feed our swans a nutritious snack that is safe and healthy for them.

As you can see, feeding the zoo is a big, difficult and often complex job. We love giving our guests the opportunity to have personal, engaging experiences with our animal residents, which is why we offer the chance to feed some of our animal residents in encounters led by our dedicated docents and animal care staff.

We hope that you’ll come visit us and enjoy not only connecting with our animal residents, but also our animal caretakers who serve as the personal chefs of pandas, camels and all the animals that call the zoo home.


Sarah Colman is the general curator at Lee Richardson Zoo.