October 14, 2020

Food for Thought

A Look at the Vital Role Nutrition Plays
in Animal Health and Happiness

By Jason Williams, Nutrition Director


Nutrition, as its own discipline, hasn’t been around all that long. Believe it or not, the very first vitamin was isolated less than 100 years ago after an observation that chickens could be protected against disease by including rice husks in their daily ration. Luckily for us, there’s been quite a bit of research performed since that time that’s laid the ground work for many of the feeding practices that we utilize today.



Tundra, grizzly bear, eating beef shank at Harmony Hill


Here at Denver Zoo, nutrition—along with animal are and veterinary sciences—is one of the critical components of a comprehensive animal wellness that goes above and beyond industry standards. We apply comparative nutrition—the science associated with how food affects species-specific animal health—to ensure we’re meeting the physiological needs of all of our 3,000 animals as a component of growth, pregnancy, lactation, illness and age. Many of the species we care for at the Zoo possess highly specialized nutritional requirements, and we provide all of our animals balanced diets to keep them healthy, which is ultimately a foundation of keeping them happy. In some cases, we’ve adjusted the diets of many animals to drastically improve—and possibly even save—their lives.


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Joona, greater one-horned rhino gets mid-morning snack in Toyota Elephant Passage


Our nutrition team is in charge of managing a nearly $1 million food budget that includes formulating, ordering, stocking, preparing and distributing more than 400 tons of hay, meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, grain, browse and other food items each year. Beyond getting proper diets to each animal, we’re also the first line of defense for protecting our animals from food borne illness, which we do by paying extra attention to proper food storage and handling, and making sure we’re following all USDA protocols and procedures. Our nutrition specialists open and inspect every single case of fruit and vegetables that comes through our building, looking for anything and everything that could potentially harm an animal. It’s also important to note, that the food we feed here at the Denver Zoo is of the highest quality possible. In fact, the meat and produce that we provide our animals is likely the same as what you might purchase straight off the shelf at your local grocery store.


Of course, I’m biased, but one of the other things that makes our nutrition program special and unique is our team, which is comprised of myself, Nutrition Center Manager Katrina Eschweiler, and three nutrition specialists—Melissa Headley, Kris Crowley and Tori Rouzaud. Together, we make up one of the most sophisticated and extensive nutrition teams among the 240 institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It’s that level of expertise, combined with the resources provided by the support of the community, that allows for an institutional understanding of the role food plays assessing, supporting and promoting animal health and happiness.

As Denver Zoo faces the ongoing challenges of COVID-19, please consider donating any amount to our most vital expense – feeding our animals by visiting DenverZoo.org/Support. To learn more about how to support our animals’ nutrition contact Patti Seitz.


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