In the early 1980s, the National Zoo was the first Zoo in the United States to hire a research nutritionist on staff, and the commitment to promoting and practicing cutting edge wildlife nutrition for zoo and free-ranging species of birds, mammal, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates continues today.
The role of the Department of Nutrition Science is to provide the best diets to the animals in our care. Providing the best diets means not only formulating appropriate diets, but also includes performing the research that provides the information we use to make rational, science-based nutrition decisions.
The National Zoo’s Department of Nutrition is made up of two clinical nutritionists, a commissary manager, a laboratory manager, a food service specialist, a group of dedicated keepers, and a management support specialist. We work closely with the other animal care service departments (Department of Animal Health and Department of Pathology) and in coordination with the curatorial and keeper staff to ensure appropriate nutrition for all of the animals in the collection.
The Department of Nutrition Science is a comprehensive zoo and wildlife nutrition program. This includes everything from scientific diet formulation to assembling and delivering diets. It includes conducting the research behind the diets to actual acquisition of diet ingredients in some cases. We are involved in every aspect of the nutrition of the animals in our care!
Program elements within the Department of Nutrition Science include:
Clinical nutrition includes balancing diets for all of the animals in our care – life stages, health issues, transitions from one facility to another.
The Smithsonian's National Zoo strives to provide the very best in animal care to the species in its charge. "Carcass feeding"—feeding portions of meat or whole (dead) prey — is one of the ways keepers and nutritionists continually enrich animals' lives; to support an animal's physical, mental, and social health and to stimulate natural behaviors in the wild.
Our Commissary is a nearly-centralized operation, which means all of the diets for the animals in the collection are weighed by the Commissary staff specifically for individual animals and/or groups of animals.
Forage and Land Management
We are the only zoo in the US to grow all of our own hay forages and this increases our responsibility to be good stewards of our land resources. We manage not only our hay production, but also the land upon which our hay is grown. We harvest all of the bamboo (and other browse species) to feed our extensive collection of herbivores.
We have four labs at the Zoo dedicated to nutrition-related analyses. We have the ability to test for a myriad of nutrients on site. This contributes to not only our own goals of quality control of feeds and applied zoo-based research, but contributes greatly to the goals of numerous visiting researchers who collaborate with us and use the labs annually.
Outreach and Education
As the nation’s Zoo, part of our mission is to support those seeking information and assistance within the realm of zoo and wildlife nutrition. This takes the form of helping colleagues with specific nutrition issues within their collections, to participation in professional zoo and wildlife nutrition groups nationally and internationally, to teaching classes at a variety of venues (from nature centers, libraries, and elementary schools to college campuses).
We also house the most extensive collection of exotic animal milks in the US. This collection is being transformed from physical samples to data which will be invaluable as we continue to discover the secrets of lactation. Practically, this information assists us and our colleagues in our efforts to raise neonatal mammals (and birds!) that we may be required to hand-rear.