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The science of feeding

Hi everyone. Kaya here from the Primate Team. One of my favorite things to do when I’m at work is feed the animals in my care. It gives us a chance to develop a relationship with the animals, creating trust and communication. I specifically work with the 19 gorillas, 11 orangutans, and three golden lion tamarins, all of whom are offered a portion of their daily diets several times a day. A lot of people think feeding the animals is fun and easy, and that is not always the case. We have to be very careful to ensure all members of the group are getting the portion of his or her diet that is appropriate for their size and age. Taz, the silverback you can usually see in the habitat with the family of gorillas, is offered more food daily than any of the others in his group, including the adult females and kiddos. Baby Floyd is still nursing, but he does experiment with the others’ food throughout the day. If you pay attention to the feedings that are scheduled for Zoo guests to observe, you may notice with this group that Taz gets a little extra, but he also gets fed first as the silverback of the group. Following Taz will be the current dominant female, Kudzoo, and then the others. With the young bachelor group of three males, Mbeli will be fed before Kali and Gunther, as he is the most dominant. With our older bachelor group, Charlie will be fed before Stadi and Kekla. On rainy and cold days when everyone is indoors, we will break up the fruit portions of the diets into even smaller pieces and utilize those pieces for additional training sessions where animal care and veterinary team members can practice body presentations, voluntary injections, voluntary blood draws, etc. These training sessions allow us to ensure the animals can participate voluntarily in their own health care. We can also come up with some creative enrichment to keep them engaged, thinking, and foraging throughout the day as they would in the wild. 

With the golden lion tamarins, we monitor their diet consumption particularly closely because they are so tiny. Fluctuations in weight with the animals (and us) can be a major indicator that there is a health concern. Some of their favorite parts of their daily diet include banana, worms, crickets and blueberries, which we can use to practice scale training and crate training. The crate training can allow us to move them from place to place when necessary – for example, for a visit to the vet or if they need to go to their indoor space due to severe weather. By maintaining their voluntary participation in these behaviors, it will be a smooth process for the animals and the care team when the behavior is needed.

“Shifting” is another behavior that we can use their daily diets for. When the animals enter the habitats for the day, you can observe them foraging for part of this diet. When they come back inside for the night, another portion of their diet is used. If we need to separate two orangutans who enjoy each other’s company from each other in order to weigh each one on a scale one at a time, their food will be used to help them separate. Sometimes you need some motivation to help you separate from your best friend, even if just for a few seconds! Using their favorite items from their diet is helpful for this. Now try remembering what everyone’s favorite food is with so many animals. Satu might prefer banana, where Pelari prefers grapes. Squash seems to be the least favorite, so squash would not be used for training, but it will be offered during the day for foraging.

As you can see, feeding so many animals is not all fun and games – it’s taken very seriously. Diets throughout the Zoo are re-evaluated constantly as the animals grow and change developmentally. As particular humans are with food, we tend to forget that animals have preferences as well. I’m personally very motivated by chocolate and ice cream or a combination of both, but like the orangutans and gorillas, you cannot get me to do squat for squash! Next time you are at the Zoo and attend a scheduled feeding, maybe you will notice what the animal groups are being offered and in which order each animal is being fed. Are the keepers doing a training session? If so, what are they using to reinforce the animal when he or she chooses to participate? Thanks for reading my blog, and enjoy this photo of Satu, Miri and Pelari, who came over for some of their favorites during the late afternoon meal of cucumber and romaine lettuce. Can you find little Pelari? He is demonstrating how we can use a portion of their diet to check on them throughout the day, although sometimes they do not make it easy!
Kaya F.
Part-time Keeper II, Primates

(photo by Kaya F.)


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