The National Zoo Diet

Six-o-clock in the morning is when the action begins at the National Zoo. Think you’re grumpy without breakfast?

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Six-o-clock in the morning is when the action begins at the National Zoo. Think you’re grumpy without breakfast? Just imagine how Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, two of the Zoo’s giant pandas, would feel without their bamboo.

Yesterday morning, I joined a zoo employee in a truck marked, “The Bamboo Never Stops,” as he delivered approximately 250 stalks of the treasured plant to the pandas, apes, elephants and several other species that enjoy the low protein, high fiber content of the leaves and stalks.

When we returned, it was off to the kitchen. With the radio softly playing in the background, we watched as nutritionists mixed bananas, lettuce, apples, carrots and corn with dozens of animal-specific biscuits. They weren’t the warm and toasty buttermilk biscuits you may enjoy for breakfast, but chicken-nugget sized combinations of oats and grains lightly flavored with citrus.

Every animal has a personalized diet, designed by a team of zoo nutritionists. The diets account for personal tastes, whether the animal runs around a lot or remains stationary, as well as age and health. For example, one gorilla received a biscuit and greens along with a beet, onion, cucumber, melon and banana.

If you ever host a dinner party for the following zoo animals, here’s what you need to know:

For penguins: These flightless birds have a taste for seafood. They’d be happy with a variety of fish, krill or squid. And no need for silverware! It’s recommended that penguins be hand-fed.

For fruit bats: Don’t let their name deceive you. These guys are picky eaters. Depending on the crowd, you may be forced to serve fruit, nectar, pollen, insects, blood, small mammals, birds, lizards, frogs or fish. It’s best to make this one a pot luck.

For Asian small-clawed otters: You may be better off going to a steak house if you have these furry guys over. Minced beef, fish, hard-boiled eggs, and locally available shellfish and crabs should be provided. Though they may not mind a bit of dog or cat food.

Wondering what your local lion or zebra is eating? You can find more nutrition advice at the American Zoo Association Web site.

-- Joseph Caputo

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