Baltimore Zoo's dietitians even chart the leftovers If snake entree is short, they'll sew on a few rats

April 01, 1991|By Gelareh Asayesh

A glimpse into Fred Beall's freezer reveals a world of good eating: young crickets fresh frozen in a plastic tub that used to hold raspberry sherbet, buckets of fuzzy day-old chicks, tiny brine shrimp, full-grown mice and little newborn mice called "pinkies."

The mature crickets sit in the UPS carton they came in, with the warning on the box now obsolete: CAUTION: LIVE CRICKETS. DO NOT EXPOSE TO ANTS, EXTREME COLD OR HEAT OR POISONOUS FUMES. In the refrigerator are stacks of frozen fish and raw horse meat loaves. This pantry's supplies also include fly larvae and mealworms, both regular and extra plump.

It's a cornucopia. It's the kitchen of the Baltimore Zoo, where only the freshest ingredients are accepted, where the menus are computer-generated exercises in precision, where anxious zoo keepers weigh even the leftovers, where dessert is a dirty word.

And these animals don't get to cheat on portions. Consider the king cobra, which eats only snakes. Reptile and amphibian curator Anthony Wisnieski keeps a good supply of frozen snakes, thawing one out every other week. But sometimes the snake is too small.

"If the snake that we thaw out isn't big enough we'll thaw some rats and sew them to the end of the snake," says Mr. Wisnieski. "By the time he gets to that part of the snake, he has no choice but to swallow the rats."

At the bird department, feeding time starts See ZOO, 2A, Col. 2ZOO, from 1Aabout 8:30 a.m. But before 8, animal keepers Eileen Rombach and Ellen McCormack are already at work, assembling meals in metal bowls that will be delivered from cage to cage.

They make meatballs out of the Bird of Prey loaves -- the horse meat concoction -- and roll them in bone meal to make them extra nutritious. They arrange dead mice in bowls and toss fruit and green salads jazzed up with a few crickets or mealworms.

The vultures get meatballs and anchovies. The American bittern still refuses anything but dead goldfish, bought 10 for a dollar at the pet store. The parrots are on a diet. A fat parrot, says Mr. Beall, the bird curator, is as unhealthy as a fat human.

"I think the hardest thing with diets in captivity is making sure they're balanced," he says. "With birds especially, it's very difficult to keep them from becoming obese."

That can shorten the animals' lives and hurt reproduction, Mr. Beall says. So instead of sunflower seeds, the parrots get commercially made parrot pellets, with fruit and greens.

If only every meal was so easy. It takes a good 10 minutes just to read the instructions for making the slop that is served twice daily to the zoo's flamboyant flamingos. And it's expensive to boot: the key ingredient, tiny brine shrimp called krill, costs $1.55 a pound.

Animal keeper Lisa Powell is whizzing around the kitchen, thawing the krill, lining up the scales, the metal bowls and a pan to cook the rice in.

She has to weigh all the ingredients: the krill, some Bird of Prey (the horse meat and grain loaf), trout chow, dog chow, shrimp meal, a vitamin supplement, non-iodized salt, rice, grated carrots and kale. Then she blends it in an industrial blender with water -- except Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, when she has to use carrot juice.

Eventually, she has a mustardy green froth afloat with bits of solids. The exotic pink birds can filter this through their beaks, just as if they're scavenging African pond bottoms in search of tiny mollusks.

And Fred Beall still isn't satisfied. He's not sure that the birds are getting enough of the food scattered through the liquid, so he's exploring alternatives with Karen J. Fulton, who, with a master's degree in animal nutrition, functions as the zoo's dietitian.

It's not enough to come up with something that zoo animals will eat, Mr. Beall says. It also has to be food that will enable them to reproduce. That hasn't happened with the lesser flamingos yet -- except at San Diego Sea World, he said.

The challenge of feeding the flamingos underscores why these animals' diets are stricter than any human's. They're adjusted monthly, when Ms. Fulton, who is also associate mammal curator, reviews the diet charts for more than a thousand animals representing 241 species.

The charts used to be done by hand, but now the task is simplified by a computer that spits out new ones once a month. On each chart is this reminder: "Leftovers are recorded on the same day as offered." It's easy to see why zoo keepers don't want visitors feeding the animals.

Measuring the leftovers is a way to keep track of whether animals are sick, pregnant -- or just not eating enough.

Ms. Fulton's grocery lists alone would be enough to drive some people crazy. She just had to increase the weekly cricket order to 11,200.

The zoo's animals also get their vegetables (and fruits). In a week, Ms. Fulton buys, among other things: 400 pounds of kale, 300 pounds of carrots, 50 pounds of potatoes and 25 pounds of grapes. The grapes are a treat -- the closest the zoo comes to offering dessert.

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