Feeding time at the modern zoo

Gir Lion Lodge at ZSL London Zoo - Bhanu, our male Asiatic lion

ZSL’s animal collection as we know it today has evolved immensely since its conception during the 1820’s and subsequent opening to the public in 1847. We now care for over 600 species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and invertebrates and one thing they have in common is that they all require feeding.

One familiar image often emerges when ‘feeding time at the zoo’ is mentioned and that is one of sticky buns for the elephants and bananas for the monkeys - if only that were true, our lives would be so much easier.

However, the 600 plus species represent a very wide array of animals that have evolved over thousands of years in diverse habitats, therefore it’s not surprising that their digestive physiology and nutritional needs are also diverse.

Fortunately there has been a shift of emphasis within the zoo community from providing an extraordinary public spectacle to one of active and coordinated species conservation work. Coupled with our progressive understanding of the principles under-pinning animal welfare, this has led to a more coherent and scientific approach to many biological disciplines, nutrition being one.

The evolution of the diets provided in captivity has essentially been guided by a limited number of factors: what we thought was being eaten in the wild, what we know of the requirements of domestic/agricultural species and a combination of guesswork with trial and error.

Zoo Nutrition has emerged as a field of growing importance over recent years, this being largely due not only to technological and scientific advances but also the heightened awareness of the improvements we can and should be making to the dietary provision of the species we maintain.

The feeding time at the modern zoo is now the culmination of a number of processes including increased research on feeding behaviour in the field, digestive physiological studies, veterinary clinical studies, inter-zoo/specialised centre liaison and controlled monitoring of existing diets.

With our increasing knowledge of the specific nutritional requirements of our animals and the limitations we face in being able to match these requirements via the whole feed types we can realistically provide in our climate, the modern zoo is an integral part of the specialist feed/product development process.

Successfully achieving the optimum diet for the vast array of species we hold is a mighty challenge and there shall always be many unknowns and assumptions. The provision of the perfect diet is very much our aim as we hope to satisfy both the physiological needs and, by way of correct presentation, satisfy the foraging behaviour and social needs of those species in our care.

It is widely accepted that the provision of an appropriate diet is paramount to maintaining high standards of welfare and so in the modern zoo you will see the elephants eating good quality hay and their keepers eating the sticky buns!