Jun 012009
 

By Teresa Pitman

What is four and a half tons of food?

Is it:
a) The amount served at the Crystal Palace buffet in one meal
or
b) What I personally ate during last year’s “free dining” promotion?

Neither one. Four and a half tons is the amount of food prepared daily for the animals at Walt Disney World. It includes an amazing variety of food, from grain and cubes for the horses living in Fort Wilderness to fish-based gels (60 pounds a day) for the fish and marine mammals at The Living Seas in Epcot, as well as the individually prepared diets for all the creatures who call Disney’s Animal Kingdom home. The meals are all prepared in a special backstage location under the supervision of animal nutritionist Eduardo Valdes, who has a PhD in Animal Science and who worked for more than a decade in the Toronto Zoo before coming to WDW. Valdes earned that PhD at the University of Guelph, where I work part-time, and I interviewed him recently for our alumni magazine.

Feeding the more than 200 species of animals at WDW is pretty daunting. When your dog or cat is hungry, you can pick up a package of kibble at the pet store. But what do you do if you have a hungry giraffe or gorilla to feed?

Well, actually, you could pick up a bag of giraffe kibble. Valdes says that there are companies making packaged food for zoo animals, but in the past, the nutritional content was often not based on research. The feed company would simply choose the food that worked with an animal they considered similar, change the label, and ship it out to the zoo. Dog food might be relabeled for hyenas, for example. Not good enough for Valdes, who says many zoo animals have died prematurely as a result of not being properly fed.

Instead, he looks at what the animals eat in the wild, and then at how those foods can be provided for them — or how something similar but more readily available might work. (The acacia leaves that wild giraffes eat, for example, are substituted with willow leaves.) And while he uses “kibble” type foods at times — based on new recipes that he and his team helped to develop for the zoo food manufacturers — the animal’s diets are more often based on fresh foods. Walk into one of the Nutrition Center’s giant coolers, for example, and you’ll see some 18 types of plants, mostly branches with leaves. Valdes calls this “browse” and the trees and plants that produce it are grown on 60 acres of land nearby.

“We put this out for many of the animals — including the elephants and giraffes — fresh each day. We grow different types of browse at different times of the year — it’s good for the animals to have these changes in their diet,” Valdes explains.

The gorillas get browse as well, plus a changing selection of fresh foods of high enough quality to serve to people. They even get treats — but healthy ones. “At Thanksgiving, we add a little nutmeg and cinnamon to their sweet potatoes,” Valdes adds.

Food, from Valdes’ perspective, isn’t just about nutrition — although nutrition is important. Handled properly, it also makes the animals’ lives more interesting and enjoyable for them. That’s why browse is provided for animals who would nibble leaves off branches in the wild, and why food is sometimes hidden so that the animals have to work a little to find it. Food can even be fun — the tigers like to play with pumpkins, for example, rolling them around and chasing them before taking a bite. Tigers also enjoy different smells, so Valdes has his staff add various herbs and spices to their foods.

In working out the amount and type of food for each animal, Valdes also needs to take into consideration the food rewards used for training. (The training done with the animals isn’t to teach them tricks — it’s preventive medicine. They learn, for example, to hold up one leg so that an injection can be given. During training, it’s just a syringe with no needle, but if the animal should become sick and need medication, it can be quickly and easily given, with no additional stress.)

But the real secret to providing the best diets for these animals is teamwork. As Valdes says, he only makes suggestions about nutritional changes — the entire team has to decide if those suggestions work. All the animals are closely monitored by the animal team. If their manure shows a deficiency in calcium or protein, for example, the veterinary staff can check to see if some illness is causing this problem, and Valdes can respond by changing the diet. Over time, this careful monitoring has helped the team figure out optimal diets for the animals in the parks. “We have ten years of data now, where we can see the results of any changes we make,” says Valdes.

There are no rides, no characters, no catchy music in this building, hidden away in a “Cast Member only” part of Animal Kingdom. What you will find, though, are people who care passionately about their work. To them, the animals are Disney’s “guests” as well, and deserve the best of care — not to mention “free dining” all year long.

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