Feeding the TopZoo animals

Meeting the dietary needs of the Topeka Zoo animals
By: Shari LaRue


Feeding the animals at our Zoo is not a simple process.   We are going to go behind the scenes with Nathan Martin, Commissary Specialist and Dr. Shirley Llizo, Zoo Veterinarian and learn more about them and the work they do to keep our animals healthy and fed.  But first some background information.


The Topeka Zoo and Conservation Center is an AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) accredited facility and in addition to the standards and guidelines provided by AZA, we also must meet the standards set forth by USDA (US Department of Agriculture) and the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration).  Just as an example, I looked up the AZA Orangutan Care Manual.  It is 147 pages long and details everything from environment and habitat needs, record keeping, transferring of orangutans from one zoo to another, social environment, nutrition, veterinary care, behavioral management and reproduction.  The chapter on Nutrition is eleven pages long.  That’s for just one species in our zoo.  Feeding programs for our animals must provide a nutritional balanced diet, but in addition to that we strive to provide a diet that stimulates natural feeding behaviors and that takes into consideration the life stage of the animal and any current health concerns.


For some examples, giraffes and elephants will reach up into the trees to forage food in the wild.  We have installed feeders that simulate that reaching activity for our giraffes and elephants.  Lions have periods in the wild when they do not have successful hunts.  In fact, lions have a successful hunt about 30 percent of the time or even less.  Because in the wild they will go without eating food every day, we give our lions a bone day once a week.  Our bears go through a seasonal change in diet with feedings throughout the day to mimic foraging.  In early Spring they get a lighter diet like they would find in the wild.  This includes lots of berries, in Summer they begin to increase their calorie intake and by Fall they are being fed calorie dense food such as fish, nuts, and veggies to prepare them for torpor (Winter rest and inactivity).


Keeper’s observations of the animals feeding habits is key to addressing nutritional requirements as well as to the overall health of the animals.  Maintaining weight records help to determine if each animal is at an optimal weight for its age.  Loss in weight or decreased appetite or changes in feeding habits may be an indication of the onset of a health issue or a dental issue.   Our keepers are responsible for documenting the consumption of diets by the animals.  They will also notify Dr. Llizo if they notice changes in feeding or things that are not normal for the animal.  Dr. Llizo, the animal keepers, Nathan from commissary and the animal care supervisors review the animal diets on an annual basis.  Adjustments may be made throughout the year dependent upon the health of each animal, observed behaviors, feeding consumption information, whether the animal is pregnant or not, weight information and the age of the animal.


The Topeka Zoo has a place in the history of early exotic animal diet research.  In 1964 Gary Clarke, the Director of the Topeka Zoo at the time called Hills Pet Nutrition in search of a better diet for the exotic animals.  At the time there were few if any exotic animal food suppliers.  Mark Morris, Jr., DVM, PhD worked with the Topeka Zoo on scientifically controlled testing for two years to find diets that were not only optimal for the animals, but also palatable.  The first exotic food lines developed were for felines, primates, ratite (ostrich, emu and other large flightless birds) and bears. The ZuPreem exotic animal diet line began.  The Morris family had a history of researching diets to provide optimal health to domestic pets.   The Topeka Zoo was fortunate to have this expertise here in Topeka and for the continued support of the Morris family and Hill’s Pet Nutrition.


Nathan Martin is our Commissary Specialist.  Nathan states, “At the commissary we can be inspected by many different organizations and must be in compliance with all of them.  These organizations include the USDA, FDA, and AZA.  Along with these regulations, we use the same standards of cleanliness as your local restaurants do.  I, personally, even got a Servsafe certificate after taking a course on food safety.”


“The zoo gets food for the animals from many different sources.  We get produce weekly from C&C Produce, the same place that grocery stores and restaurants also get their produce.  Other places provide items for zoos specifically.  Central Nebraska supplies our meat specially made for our carnivores.  Rodent Pro and Big Cheese Rodents provide our mice and rats.  We get live insects from a number of suppliers.  One of our main grain suppliers is Mazuri.  They have formulas specific for zoo animals, such as elephants and ostriches.  We also get donations from businesses in Topeka.  Hy-Vee, Seabrook Apple Market, and Natural Grocers all donate produce to the zoo.  Farview Farms and Blind Tiger Brewery both donate bones for our animals.  Hill’s Pet Nutrition continue to support us with donations of food. Not to mention the various guests that donate food and toys to our animals.  We are lucky and thankful to have such a wonderful relationship with our community.”


It isn’t hard to imagine how difficult keeping track of our inventory is. The produce and live insects are ordered weekly.  The other items, such as meat, rodents, fish, grain, we keep track of visually ordering new product when amounts get down to a certain level.


Nathan states “It’s amazing to think of how much food our animals go through.  We go through 23 TONS of produce per year.  We also go through almost 10 tons of meat per year. In a week we use 2,000 live crickets and 7,000 live mealworms.


Our 3 orangutans eat almost 35 lbs. of romaine every day.  That’s just romaine, they get other food items every day as well.


It takes commissary keepers anywhere from 4 to 5 hours each day to prep the diets for all of our animals.”


Then there are additional concerns that Nathan is responsible for.  As an example, In November of 2018 there was a recall on romaine lettuce due to contamination.  Thankfully, this occurred just before Nathan was placing his order for the lettuce, so he had to substitute a more expensive leaf lettuce.  As it turned out, the Orangutans seemed to enjoy the change.


Again, in Nathan’s words, “Quality control is one of the things I have to consider when I prep food for the animals.  Sometimes we get food items we rarely deal with.  One of these is papaya.  I was concerned whether this particular papaya we got was still okay to feed to the animals or not.  I couldn’t tell by looking at it.  I tried smelling it.  It didn’t smell bad, but I wasn’t positive.  So as a last resort, I tasted it.  It was not okay to feed out.  My tongue regretted that decision.”


We appreciate the dedication and all the work that goes into what Nathan does at the commissary.


Dr. Shirley Llizo, our Zoo veterinarian is a graduate of the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Veterinary Medicine, Philadelphia, PA.  She has been with the Topeka Zoo since 2006 and prior to that worked at the Houston Zoo in TX, the Singapore Zoo & Night Safari, the Philadelphia Zoo, the Wildlife Conservation Society (Bronx Zoo, NY) and the London Zoo in the UK.  We are fortunate to have all this experience and I’m sure there are lots of great stories to be told with a resume that includes all these places of work.


The Topeka Zoo currently has 73 species of mammals, 105 bird species, 26 reptiles, 3 amphibians and 21 different invertebrates for a total of 109 species.  That’s about 230 individual animals.  Each animal has a diet sheet that includes food items and the amount of each food to be given each day.  Not every day is the same, so there are many daily diet sheets to keep track of.  Dr. Llizo will work with Nathan and the keepers to modify or change dietary needs as previously discussed.  When new animals arrive, their diet information is sent with them.  If needed we might substitute similar food items with a different brand, but in general their diet stays the same as what they were used to.


When a keeper observes an animal not eating certain items or prefers a certain item over another, when the animal’s weight needs adjustments or any other concern, the keeper will submit a request to Dr. Llizo.  After reviewing the request, she will inform the commissary of any changes that need to be made. Changes may also be made when new nutritional information is available.


At the beginning of each year, diet review is done on each animal’s diet.  If no changes are necessary, the diet is dated with the review date.  If there are any changes made, then the diet is dated with the change date.  In addition, every updated diet sheet is signed off on by Dr. Llizo.  These diet sheets are copied so that the commissary has a copy, a copy is maintained in the vet hospital as part of the animal’s medical record and a copy is sent to the specific range so that the keepers have a copy.


Maintaining the animal’s health with a nutritious diet plan is just a part of all that Dr. Llizo does for the zoo.  You will be hearing more about all that Dr. Llizo does in the future.