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The National Zoo has a bank of mammalian milk, the largest collection of its kind in the country. It includes samples of milk from hundreds of different mammals, from our zoos and research facilities all over the world.
by Brittany Grayson
|Ken Lang bottle feeds a clouded leopard cub at the National Zoo's Conservation and Research Center. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)|
The National Zoo has a bank of mammalian milk, the largest collection of its kind in the country. It includes samples of milk from hundreds of different mammals, from our Zoo and from zoos and research facilities all over the world.
Formulating a diet for a grown animal is hard enough. But the difficulty increases exponentially when nutritionists try to figure out what to put in a baby animal’s bottle.
Milk varies widely across mammals, and nutritionists have to try to replicate the nutrients newborn animals need. Many zoos, including the National Zoo, used to hand-rear animals frequently, but today they only hand-rear in special situations where doing so ensures the animal’s future health and well-being.
Recently, the Zoo began handrearing a red panda (Ailurus fulgens) cub and three clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) cubs. The clouded leopards got a milk formula that’s a mixture of two different commercially available cat formulas. But since red pandas aren’t closely related to any large domesticated group, nutritionists decided to feed the red panda cub a formula Zoo nutritionists initially developed for giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) cubs. Although the two species aren’t closely related, both eat primarily bamboo, so the nutrient requirements for newborns are similar.
Not only do nutrient needs differ between species, but scientists think they might change with time as well. To help answer questions like these, the National Zoo has a bank of mammalian milk, the largest collection of its kind in the country. It includes samples of milk from hundreds of different mammals, from our Zoo and from zoos and research facilities all over the world. Research based upon this milk will eventually help other zoos bottle-feed animals even more successfully, and scientists can study the milk to understand more about the metabolism and growth of wild animals.
Bottle-feeding baby animals, though, involves more than just selecting or creating the right milk formula. Ken Lang, an animal keeper, says figuring out how to bottle-feed animals has been a series of trials and errors, and builds upon an enormous bank of scientific knowledge.
“We use stomach capacity and body weight percentages to figure out the right amount to feed,” he explains. “We calculate everything every day based on the cub’s body weight.”
In addition to finding just the right formula, keepers and nutritionists have to worry about how to make sure the formula gets into the baby’s stomach.
“Although sometimes it looks like you just throw a bottle in the mouth, there’s more to it than that,” Lang says. “Hand-feeding can be tricky. A lot depends on the temperature of the milk, how well it flows out of the bottle, how well the cub grasps the nipple. For some cubs, you have to hold your fingers on the sides of their mouth to get suction. And they’ll get frustrated if the milk isn’t coming out properly or if the nipple is clogged.”
He says keepers, veterinarians, and nutritionists meet every week (sometimes every day) to discuss the bottlefed babies and to perfect the process.
“As we tweak the protocol, we get better and better at what we feed, when we feed, and how often we feed.”
Of course, the Zoo hopes that it never has to handraise many animals. But developing the knowledge and expertise to do so benefits the animals in our Zoo and, by sharing that knowledge, benefits all animals in captivity.
— BRITTANY GRAYSON is a web content editor and science writer for Friends of the National Zoo.
If you have a comment about Smithsonian Zoogoer magazine, please email it to us.Smithsonian Zoogoer 38(6) 2009. Copyright 2009 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.