Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Raising Babies By Hand

Sidebar: Got Milk?

With more than 5,800 samples of milk to pick from, finding formula for a new baby shouldn’t be that difficult. But it can be tricky when the baby’s a gorilla, giant panda, or lion.
The Zoo’s Department of Nutrition Science houses the largest animal milk repository in the world, and its 14 staff members use data from those milk samples to concoct complicated nursing formulas for practically every mammal at the Zoo. That work starts months in advance of any newborn’s arrival.


A red panda gulps down a meal. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

When it comes to trying out a new formula, “no two animals are the same,” says department head Mike Maslanka. If an animal’s mother can’t provide milk, the staff take on that job, working with hand-rearing teams for each species.

“Ideally, we want an infant to nurse from the mother. But when that’s not possible, we have to decide right away if it needs milk or water or something else like Pedialyte,” he explains. The team breathes easier as an animal grows. For example, Maslanka notes, the Zoo’s seven lion cubs “are golden now because they’re on solids,” but the nutrition staff was ready if they needed added care.

“We can develop the best formula in the world and what we’re doing involves everyone: the vets, curators, keepers, and nutritionists,” Maslanka adds.

From the most unusual cases like the little porcupine who wouldn’t eat until banana was added to his milk to preparing for the possibility of a new giant panda cub, the staff here are always on call. After all, they have a lot of mouths to feed.


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Smithsonian Zoogoer 40(4) 2011. Copyright 2011 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.