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Zoo animals go "locavore"

Posted by: Ric Brewer, Communications

Did you ever wonder what it takes to provide food for the nearly 1,100 animals at Woodland Park Zoo? How does the zoo provide nutritionally balanced and natural diets that range from hundreds of pounds a day of hay for the elephants, oryx, gazelles and other animals to nettle leaf powder for our Partula snails? Where does it all come from?

With nearly 300 different animal species, our staff works hard to provide all the animals with the opportunity to display natural behaviors, which includes replicating as closely as possible what they would eat in the wild.

But there's even more to it than finding just the right veggies, fruits and other foods. When planning the diets for our animals, three factors are taken into consideration:

1) what is the best, nutritionally balanced diet for this particular species?

2) are those foods available?

3) can we find this food locally? What is the impact on our carbon footprint?

Are we always able to make all our food choices this way? Unfortunately not. Durian fruit and bananas aren't locally grown. Because animal nutrition comes first, we sometimes do have to reach further than our local vendors. We do, however, make every effort to reduce our carbon footprint, a task that, in the long run, also works in favor of our animals and the planet.

Some food is cultivated right on zoo grounds in what we call "browse gardens": vegetables such as tomatoes, herbs such as rosemary and oregano, are grown in spots throughout the zoo, even at the administrative office area. But most of our food must be purchased. Our animals eat food that comes from the same sources that stock your local grocery, as well as food purchased from vendors who specialize in exotic animal diets from further afield. Still, we are always mindful of our carbon impact and alter diets or vendors to this end, but always with the animals in mind. For example, we recently changed our carnivore diet vendor (for the tigers, snow leopards, etc.) from on in the Midwest to one in California. Reducing the distance food travels is one step in reducing carbon emission AND also saves the zoo money.

As part of our Summer Experience, we're also encouraging visitors through a variety of programs to consider their food choices and sources, just like we do for our animals and at our "people food" dining options on grounds. We hope you'll join us in making smart, well-informed food decisions. Whenever possible, shop local farmers' markets, ask your grocer about where your food originates from, and, whenever you can, grow your own!