Why not just feed zoo animals whatever they eat in the wild? Michael Maslanka, who oversees the feeding of the 2,000 animals at the National Zoo, representing 400 species, gets that question a lot. He often replies: “A fig is not a fig.”
How so? The figs sloth bears consume in the wild are highly fibrous and low in sugar, quite different from the figs cultivated for humans. A keeper’s job is to match underlying nutritional elements, not botanical species, he explains, so a sweet potato might be a decent wild-fig substitute.
A 41-year-old with degrees in wildlife science and nutritional physiology, Maslanka makes such calls species by species even as he deals with daily crises: a cheetah as picky as a toddler; elephants with an eerie talent for spotting pills hidden in food. He’s part scientist (author of “Blood, Protein and Energy Consumption by Common Vampire Bats”!), part chef and part nag who makes everyone eat their leafy greens.
The zoo’s culinary center, a bunker-like warren beneath a parking lot, includes a large kitchen with gleaming stainless steel work surfaces. “Plenty of chefs have told us our kitchen is cleaner than theirs,” Maslanka says, looking on as volunteers and staff place restaurant-quality vegetables into delivery boxes. (You can see a video featuring Maslanka at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TTgGeP-pQ7o.)
The 40-year-old orangutan Lucy gets a fortified biscuit plus green peppers and mixed greens, and, to pique her interest, broccoli one day, yellow squash the next, onions the next. The use of biscuits and pellets is minimized, especially for gorillas, which are prone to heart disease and therefore given as little protein- and fat-heavy processed food as possible. All told, roughly 70 pounds of meat, 150 pounds of fish and 160 pounds of vegetables go out the door daily along with bugs and worms for the birds. For the pandas, the staff harvests bamboo at some 20 sites in the Washington, D.C. area.
We’re learning that jaws and digestive tracts benefit when large carnivores take the meat off whole animals, or off large parts, but must weigh the sensibilities of our visitors as we consider further moves in that direction.
Of course, Americans are becoming more conscious about what they put into their bodies. That’s one theme of our landmark exhibition “Food: Transforming the American Table: 1950-2000,” open at least through 2015 at the National Museum of American History and signaling a deeper interest in food culture at the Smithsonian. Julia Child’s kitchen used to be a lone jewel at the museum. Now it’s in a setting that makes clear the social, political and environmental dimensions of food, which, for human and nonhuman animals alike, has always been about far more than mere sustenance.