By Meleah Maynard
“Half my job is just dealing with picky eaters,” says Devan Paulus Compart (M.S. ’12, Ph.D. ‘14), pointing to the diet sheet on her computer screen. As the animal nutritionist for the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago—the oldest zoo in the nation—Compart spends a lot of time researching and formulating diets to ensure the animals stay healthy. On this morning, she’s working on the menu for a Hoffman sloth couple that recently had a baby. With the infant growing and mom lactating, family members need more food to meet their energy needs. Next, she’ll be turning her attention back to tweaking primate diets so they no longer get sugary fruits, which are causing obesity and dental issues. “Our fruit has much more sugar in it than fruit they would eat in the wild, so like a few other zoos, we’re starting to move to fruit-free diets,” she explains, adding that another plus is that the animals may fight less over food because fruit-free diets are less tasty.
Gone are the days when zoos allowed visitors to put spare change into machines that dispense cereal or dry kibble to toss to animals in the enclosures. Today, as more is learned about what animals should and shouldn’t eat to stay healthy in captivity, zoos are paying more attention to nutrition. But while all zoos have a nutrition center, few are staffed by a nutritionist. Compart, who started work at the Lincoln Park Zoo shortly after graduating from the University in 2014, figures she is one of fewer than 20 animal nutritionists working at U.S. zoos.
But that’s changing, because nutritionists are saving zoos money by keeping animals healthier and reducing food costs, Compart says. At the Lincoln Park Zoo, a small zoo where admission is free, Compart manages an annual food budget of $400,000. And with bamboo for just two of the zoo’s red pandas running about $400 a week, it takes some creativity to make her numbers.
Fruit, starchy vegetables and skewers of additional fare are ready for fruit bats. Mealworms in front are for the armadillo
Though Compart didn’t set out to become a zoo nutritionist, she settled on that path while doing her graduate work in the Department of Animal Science. Growing up in North Bend, Washington, she spent time out in the field with her dad, a wildlife biologist. At home, she conducted her own experiments, and her parents have Polaroids of her setting up feeding trials to discover what her pet rat most liked to eat—oats. By age 10, she was riding horses and working at a stable. Five years later she started giving horseback riding lessons, and she initially studied equine science at the U before switching to livestock after just one quarter. “I was working with cattle professor Alfredo DiCostanzo and got really interested in nutrition,” she recalls. The more she learned about animal nutrition and the possibility of working in zoos, the more she decided that was the job for her.
Though much is known about what domestic species like pigs and cows eat, designing diets for exotic zoo creatures, such as reptiles, birds, meerkats, and polar bears is trickier because their nutritional needs are less understood. “Zoos have for a long time been feeding polar bears fat because they eat seals in the wild and they are high in fat,” she explains. “But animals know what their bodies need, and research has shown that they eat the meat, too, especially when they need more protein for growth. As nutritionists, we need to be looking at what animals are really eating, not feeding them what we think they eat.”
In addition to creating diets for all of the zoo’s animals, Compart also conducts quarterly body condition scoring evaluations to assess whether animals are overweight, underweight, or possibly pregnant. She also specifies what caretakers who look after the animals can use as enrichment foods. Most of the animals in the zoo receive these foods, which are literally meant to enrich animals’ lives by encouraging behaviors like foraging, which they would engage in daily were they not in enclosures. Foods vary by species, with Diana monkeys getting things like frozen, unsweetened blueberries, jungle food pellets, peanut butter, and waxworms, while meerkats enjoy egg whites and an occasional frozen pinky mouse.
“Animals need to be stimulated and have things to do, just like they would in the wild,” Compart says. “So the keepers scatter enrichment foods, or smear them around, or hide them so the animals have to work to get at them. It’s not about nutrition as much as fun mental stimulation, which is important for their health too.”