FEED THE ANIMALS
O n the wall outside Ellen Dierenfeld’s office is a hand-written recipe for Reptile Salad.
Next to that is a grocery list that includes 10 tons of carrots, 1.5 tons of squid, 500 cases of bananas, 1.2 million crickets, and 22,000 mice.
Dierenfeld (’78 animal science) is the head animal nutritionist for the Saint Louis Zoo, and her office is in the new Orthwein Animal Nutrition Center, one of the premier zoo nutrition centers in the country. The 10,000-square-foot center provides more than 7,500 square feet for food preparation, a walk-in freezer and refrigerator, and a fully equipped laboratory.
Dierenfeld came to the Saint Louis Zoo four years ago from the Bronx Zoo, where she spent 17 years as head of the animal nutrition department. There, she and her staff developed a computer software program called “Zootrition” that is used by more than 200 facilities worldwide. The software’s home base is now at the Saint Louis Zoo.
The discipline of animal nutrition is constantly being refined. Dierenfeld characterizes the field as containing a limited set of information for the variety of species being housed in zoos.
“That leaves it wide open for a huge research program for your entire life, basically,” Dierenfeld said.
Right now she’s exploring zebra nutrition, doing a study on sun bears, completing rhino digestion and frog feeding trials, and looking at the digestibility of bones as a food source for hyenas. She’s preparing Asian “carp cakes”
to feed to a variety of animals. (“We’re making a good food out of a bad fish,” she says.) She’s worked with pangolins (an armored anteater), Humbolt penguins, Hellbender salamanders,
and horned guans (a bird about the size of a large chicken that lives in Guatamala and Mexico). All together, she said, there are a total of 18,000 mouths to feed at the Saint Louis Zoo.
Dierenfeld grew up in rural Deep River, Iowa, the daughter of a veterinarian. She started out as a fisheries and wildlife biology major at Iowa State before making the switch to animal
science. When she took a nutrition class, she knew she’d found her field.
“It’s really a hard science, a solid science,” she said. “I think there’s a link between the wildlife and the nutrition that hasn’t been developed fully.”
She went to Cornell University in New York for her master’s and PhD.
In her current position, she oversees
a staff of six, including an associate nutritionist, zoological manager, and four keepers who do food preparation. She said the staff moves about a ton and a half of food every day, 365 days a year.
Dierenfeld said it’s becoming more commonplace for zoos to have animal nutritionists on staff.
“Somebody manages the feeding program at every zoo, but whether they’re trained specifically in nutri-
tion is a different issue,” she said. “I think nutrition is a basic foundation of conservation because health and reproductive programs depend upon good nutrition. It’s really nice to see
that more and more zoos are starting
to recognize that and hire nutritionists on staff.”
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