On a chilly February morning, I set off with Mike Maslanka as he wove a truck carrying 250 stalks of bamboo through the Asia Trail at the National Zoo. The Senior Animal Nutritionist was demonstrating one of the more hands-on aspects of the job, which includes planning diets, preparing meals and figuring out whether or not the elephants are getting their exercise.
Animal nutrition is a young science - the first position was created at the National Zoo in the 1970s - and the job has its challenges, but Maslanka knows how to tackle them all. In our interview, he told me some surprising stories about how he feeds the animals. (To learn how to cook for the animals, check out our companion blog Surprising Science.)
Joseph Caputo: How do you prevent animals from stealing from one another?
Mike Maslanka: In mixed animal exhibits there's always the opportunity for stealing, that's just the nature of the animals. If we really had a caloric intake concern, we would go through different measures to make sure that didn't happen. Like, in the case of our male small Asian-clawed otter group right now. We've got some individuals that are kind of the high end of the weight range and the low end of the weight range. We're working on target feeding a portion of the diet for each one of those individuals instead of having a small mob of Asian small-clawed otters that are stealing and pulling things from one another.
JC: Do animals always eat what you give them?
MM: No. We know that we've got animals that have specific preferences and that's feedback from the keepers telling us such and such doesn't eat apples or such and such only eats biscuits. Our new spectacled bear, Billy Jean, loves biscuits. She doesn't like fruit or produce, seemingly, very much at all. Based on what their preferences are we can encourage animals to eat what we'd like them to eat.
JC: What about lizards or birds... are you feeding them live bugs?
MM: Sometimes we do. We have crickets and meal worms and wax worms that we actually feed them but also depending on what it is, they're going to get some complete feed too. If you have a free-ranging animal that's an insectivore, it has access to thousands of different choices when it comes to insects. And when it comes into the zoo setting it has about five. So, they're going to get a broader nutrient profile from that diet than they probably are from the one that we're feeding them - so we have to make sure we get it right.
JC: Is it a guessing game? Or does it take science?
MM: There’s a lot more science to it than it sounds because we find the nutrient content of those insects in the literature. Somebody’s done it. And if somebody hasn’t done it, that’s what we’re here for. It may not be the same bug that that animal consumes in the wild. But if it’s the same nutrients, that’s what we’re concerned about.