This post written by Marissa Talamantes.
Hello! My name is Marissa Talamantes and I have been given the lucky opportunity to be an Intern with the Carnivore Department at the Houston Zoo for the spring. My internship ranges from the gross to the awesome, and I would like to share what I have learned.
So far, I have been interning for two weeks, and I have found no two days are the same! Preparing the food (or “diets” as the keepers call them), is probably the only thing that stays the same. As an intern, one of my responsibilities is helping to prepare the diets for whichever section I am at for the day. In the Carnivore Department, there are four sections: Lions and Painted Dogs, Tiger Building, Wolves and Cheetahs (this includes Taji the Anatolian Shepherd), and Bears.
Here is the container full of meat for our cheetah Kito. If you look at the container lid, you can see his name written on it!
Since most of the animals in our department are carnivores, they do eat raw meat (with the exception of Taji, our Anatolian Shepherd). It can be pretty gross handling it, but you get used to it. There are many different types of animals, some of which are very small like our ocelot Novia, or very big like our male tiger Pandu. With each animal being different sizes, they all get different amounts of food to make sure they stay healthy and in good shape.
How do the keepers know how much to feed the animals? The cycle begins with the veterinarian. The animal doctor looks at an animal’s initial body condition to decide what its target weight should be. The target weight is an ideal range the vet prefers the animal to say within. For example Jonathan, our male lion, has a target range of 363-374lbs. That may seem like a lot to you and me, but for a big cat like him that is a decent size. Once the vet decides the target weight, they inform the keepers who then determine the amount of food to give them. Each morning the animals eat their specific breakfast. To make sure their meals do not get mixed up, we label containers with their name on it. After a month of eating their specific amount of raw meat, the keepers weigh them on a scale. Keepers will set up a scale in one of the indoor bedrooms the carnivores use, and then move the animal into that room once the door is secure. All of the carnivores are trained to step onto the scale, and the keeper will give them a reward while recording their weight.
The next step depends on how much the animal weighs. If the animal is below his/her target weight, we raise the amount of food up to 10%, and if the animal is above his/her target weight, we lower it up to 10%. For example, if Kito (one of the cheetahs) was above his target weight, we would lower his food amount from 1550g to about 1395g. If he was below the weight, we would raise it from 1550g to about 1705g. Since the vet cannot look at every animal in the zoo every single day, the keepers will observe the animal’s morphology (body shape and size) and behavior for changes that might indicate a weight change. If they appear sluggish (because they ate too much), or aggressive with food (because they want more), the keeper will notify the vet. With the communication between the keepers and the vets, they make sure the animal gets the right amount of food and nutrition.
Even with this plan, we have to remember all of our animals are individuals, and each one is different. What may be a good target weight for Aries, may not be a good target weight for Mikita, even though they are both African Painted Dogs.
Throughout the course of my internship, I hope to share more of my experiences as I learn what it takes to work in the Carnivore Department. Be sure to keep an eye out for them!