Feeding the Animals at the National Zoo

After hiring the first animal nutritionist 30 years ago, the National Zoo prepares specific, well-balanced meals for each animal

The Zoo’s three pandas, here Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, require a constant supply of bamboo, a plant that is not very nutritious, especially for animals, like pandas, that are natural carnivores. (Jessie Cohen, National Zoo)

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Inside the National Zoo’s commissary, a radio plays in the background as two young employees cut up bananas, lettuce, apples, carrots and corn and mix them with multivitamin-like biscuits that will later be fed to the orangutans. The chefs read from cookbooks detailing the individualized meals required for each animal. As Maslanka watches over the preparations, he notes some of the unique tastes of the zoo’s residents. “Our new spectacled bear, Billy Jean, loves biscuits,” he says. When asked how the biscuits taste, he holds one of the grainy, chicken-nugget-sized lumps in his hand. It smells of citrus. “How about we go with cardboard,” Maslanka says with a laugh.

Wherever possible, food is delivered in a way that stimulates an animal’s innate foraging behaviors—giraffes reach for alfalfa strung from trees, gorillas hunt for fruit hidden throughout their exhibit, and groundhogs dig for their vegetables. This tactic has helped Nikki, the now handsome spectacled bear, stay in shape. Visitors giggle as he perks up from his resting spot the moment the side gate to his exhibit at the National Zoo creaks open. The zookeeper walks out onto the cliff above Nikki and tosses fruit and biscuits over the edge. The spectacled bear spends the next half-hour walking around the back of his space, tracking down food and munching. Nikki may be on a diet, but he still likes to eat.


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