- The nonprofit Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is home to about 2,300 animals from tiny lizards and frogs to penguins, tigers, elephants and giraffes.
- The zoo’s budget for animal food is $500,00 this year.
- A team of zoo staff and volunteers ensure the animals have healthy, nutritious and good tasting meals and snacks.
- Gorillas and jaguars are picky eaters.
Billy kept his snout to the ground, sniffing continuously and stopping frequently as he ambled in search of the tasty morsels that Theresa Wolfgang hid in a hollow tree stump and the grass of his wooded enclosure.
The 5-year-old black bear was foraging for pre-breakfast appetizers at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens much like he would do normally do in the wild.
“He’s a very healthy eater,” said Wolfgang, a mammals keeper who cares for Billy and other animals in the zoo’s Wild Florida exhibit.
That recent morning, Wolfgang brought Billy a few handfuls of crisp lettuce stuffed inside a pet activity ball, peanut butter and grape jelly smeared on a forage board and some chopped fruit and veggies.
It was part of a nutrient-rich breakfast that typically can also feature omnivore chow, live crickets, fresh produce, frozen fish or hard-boiled eggs.
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Billy eats a lot healthier now than he did as a cub, when he would scavenge sugar-packed human junk food resulting in him being labeled a “problem bear” and being brought to the zoo to live instead of being euthanized.
Nonprofit and nationally recognized as an innovative facility, the Jacksonville Zoo is home to about 2,300 rare, exotic and native animals, saidDan Maloney, deputy zoo director for Animal Care, Conservation and Wellness.
Maloney oversees animal nutrition — a highly specialized, complex and crucial behind-the-scenes component of zoo operations.
“To feed these animals, it’s half a million dollars a year,” Maloney said. The budget has risen steadily over the years. It totaled roughly $400,000 a decade ago when Maloney joined the zoo.
Maloney said feeding the animals is the second-costliest expense after personnel in the zoo’s $19.5 million operating budget.
Maloney said whether the zoo is open or closed, the animals must be fed and the food must be high quality, nutritious and taste good to keep them healthy, happy and engaged.
The COVID-19 pandemic closed the zoo in March and April, resulting in $6 million in lost revenue, Executive Director Tony Vecchio said at the time. Even after the zoo reopened, attendance has lagged from pre-pandemic levels.
In September, the zoo launched an emergency virtual fundraiser with a goal of raising $250,000 to help make up the critical funding gap caused by the pandemic. The Zoo-A-Thon raised $354,000, much of which was allocated to pay for animal food.
Founded in 1914, the zoo encompasses 110 acres at 370 Zoo Parkway in North Jacksonville. It also includes the Manatee Critical Care Center, one of only four acute-care, rehabilitation centers in Florida to provide medical treatment for rescued manatees — a federally protected species — that are injured, ill or orphaned.
The manatees treated there rely primarily on romaine lettuce, Maloney said. But romaine is one of the most expensive — and at times one of the toughest — food items to get.
“We also try to make sure they have natural foods,” Maloney said. They routinely go out and collect native aquatic plants from various waterways on the zoo grounds and surrounding areas.
Like little kids who don’t like carrots or a past president who rejected broccoli, the zoo’s animals have their own food likes and dislikes — and aren’t shy about making their preferences known to keepers.
Lash, a silverback gorilla who will celebrate his 44th birthday on Christmas, doesn’t like papaya, said animal health supervisor Nicole Monell, who was his primary keeper for many years.
“I can give it to him and he spits it out into his hand and gives it back to me. He’s like ‘I’ll put it in my mouth but I’m not going to eat it,”’ she said.
And then there’s George, one of the zoo’s younger gorillas, whose food preferences include a popular breakfast cereal, Maloney said. Now 5½ years old, George was the first gorilla born at the Jacksonville Zoo in 2015.
“He’s a shopper. You’ll see him when they scatter food in the morning. He goes out there and gathers up as much as he can,” Maloney said. “Every youngster seems to like Cheerios, but George really likes them.”
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Karl Betz, senior animal nutrition technician, didn’t hesitate when asked which of the big cats — lions, tigers, cheetahs, jaguars, bobcats or leopards — are the pickiest eaters.
“Jaguars, definitely the jaguars,” said Betz, who often prepares their food.
Until transferred to the Phoenix Zoo last year, Saban, a 7-year-old jaguar, had a reputation as a finicky eater with an elaborate diet. Saban preferred capelin — a small fish in the smelt family — served with his meat — and occasionally a large rat.
Jaguars are good swimmers and will hunt fish in the wild. Saban, however, doesn’t like to get his paws wet, zoo officials said.
Some of the zoo’s elephants have touchy tummies. Ali was colicky last year and could only eat timothy hay, which the zoo only could get from the Carolinas or Virginia at a premium price, Maloney said.
He said certain types of hay are too rich for some of the animals. Timothy hay is among the natural foods the zoo often must get from out of state to feed its elephants, rhinos, antelopes and giraffes.
Timothy hay currently sells for $25 a bale, Monell said. But coastal hay, which is considered regular hay, costs $5 a bale. And alfalfa runs $36 a bale, she said.
The greater the distance, the greater the cost.
The bonobos, meanwhile, like to watch. A window built into one of their holding areas allows the curious primates to see keepers put the finishing touches on their meals in a small adjacent kitchen.
“The bonobos seem to find it fascinating when people are preparing their dinner,” Malone said. “These are super smart animals and so they recognize the ingredients in their food. They seem to find it very entertaining.”
Monell, the animal health supervisor, heads a team of animal nutrition technicians and volunteers who start their day at 5 a.m. in the zoo’s main kitchen.
The team is responsible for preparing the food for all the animals according to diets determined by the zoo’s veterinarians, keepers, nutrition experts and lessons learned by other zoos.
“If you can’t eat it, why should we give it to our animals?” said Monell, noting most of the food they prepare is human grade.
Animal nutrition technician Sophie Berman-Woodward, volunteer Mike Conklin and Betz recently staffed the kitchen in the animal nutrition center.
“Every type of fruit and vegetable that you would eat, these guys will eat,” Monell said of the animals.
Three-ring binder notebooks with hand-written notes in the margins of printed recipes detail the diet for each species. Hanging on one wall, a whiteboard lists the menu they are working on that day.
“No mustard greens. They don’t like them. Every little trick of the trade goes into the recipe book,” Monell said of the recipe book for the green basilisk, a lizard from tropical Central America.
The team also keeps tabs on which animals are diabetic, have food allergies or need a special diet because of their age.
They tailor the cuisine according to nutrition plans and dietary guidelines determined by zoo veterinarians.
But like typical grocery shoppers, the zoo sometimes encounters food shortages and rising prices.
“Prices go up like crazy. A case of romaine lettuce has gone up significantly. Sometimes, we have a hard time getting ahold of live food like crickets and worms,” Maloney said.
He said they try to stock up, especially during hurricane season.
“We try to make sure we have a good supply of fruits and vegetables,” he said. “Often our teams go out and purchase things at grocery stores or Walmart because some things are harder to get.”
Like other modern zoos and aquariums, the Jacksonville Zoo works to replicate the wild diets of its animals as closely as possible, Maloney said.
In many cases, there are ingredients and compounds that are necessary for good animal health that may not initially be included in the diet. The diets evolve over time. Jacksonville consults with its staff veterinarians as well as other zoos and outside animal nutritionists, he said.
“We also try to provide natural foods whenever possible,” he said.
On the menu
“They are essential,” Maloney said of the team that some describe affectionately as “zoo chefs.”
Unlike some zoos that feed whole carcasses to their big cats, or birds of prey to mimic their prey in the wild, Jacksonville doesn’t use that method. It doesn’t have the refrigerated storage space for the carcasses.
Instead, the Jacksonville Zoo’s lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars are fed horse meat that is ground up or cut into large sections.
Very few of the Jacksonville Zoo animals are fed live prey. Those meals are limited to live crickets, Superworms and mealworms for multiple species of birds, anteaters, otters, bears and some small reptiles and amphibians.
Frozen rabbits, mice and chickens round out the diets of snakes and large lizards. The zoo’s vampire bats get good, clean cow’s blood in bags.
Almost universally popular among the animals are homemade fruit and veggie cups, which simply is cut-up fruits and vegetables frozen in water until it’s a homemade popsicle, Monell said.
Some of the fresh produce fed to the animals is grown on zoo grounds. Currently, the fall garden has mustard greens, broccoli and sugar cane almost ready to harvest.
Maloney said the zoo makes a concerted effort to collect browse — fresh cuttings from trees and shrubs — to augment the diets of the zoo’s giraffes, elephants, rhinos and other herbivores. That vegetation has natural nutrients essential to the animals’ health, he said.
Anheuser-Busch and JEA have been good sources of browse over the years, but the zoo is always on the lookout for new sources, such as cemeteries, schools or office parks.
The browse team cuts multiple truck-loads of vegetation a week and brings it back for the zoo animals, Monell said.
The zoo welcomes donations. It has a wish list, including numerous dietary enrichment supplies and nutritional items always needed for the animals. The needed food includes dried fruit in unopened packages, 100 percent sugar-free fruit or vegetable juice, sugar-free jelly, regular grape jelly, honey and creamy natural peanut butter with no added sweeteners.
Monell said they also could use a new standup freezer and refrigerator at the zoo kitchen.
Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075