Go Behind the Scenes Into the Phoenix Zoo's Kitchen

By Hannah Cooper, Mariel Sokolov, Abby Stewart and Mayuri Sundar
June 25, 2014

Almost everyone’s been to the zoo. They’ve seen the animals playing, sleeping, mating, and, of course, eating. But how many think about one of the most important parts of the animals’ care?

In a fairly nondescript building at the back of the Phoenix Zoo, workers prepare about 800 meals every day to feed the facility’s 1,400 animals.

Denise Metcalf, a diet technician working in the commissary, prepares the meals, or “diets,” according to what animals eat in the wild. On occasion, workers must adjust the diets according to what is available.

For example, elephants mostly eat leaves in the wild but, in the zoo, they eat hay, as well as produce such as sweet potatoes, apples, pears, celery, carrots and lettuce. Because they are higher in sugar, the elephants receive them in limited quantities.

“There are definitely some differences when you consider what we have access to,” Metcalf said. “We do our very best to make sure the animals are getting the nutrition that they need.”

The rhinoceros hornbill diet is particularly important at the moment. One pair of the tropical birds from Southeast Asia recently hatched a chick, so nutrition is key. Along with their usual mix of fruits, they get some extra protein in the form of hard-boiled eggs and worms for the chick. Right now, the male hornbill brings food to the female and their chick because of how hornbills nest during hatching season.

Before laying the egg, female hornbills “mud” into hollowed-out trees, building a wall of feces and soft fruits. In captivity, they use the bananas and cooked yams from their diets. The wall is as hard as concrete and protects the mother and her chick, with only a slit left open for food.

For the first couple months of the chick’s life, the male delivers food through the slit.

Once the baby is too big for the mother to comfortably stay in the tree, she breaks the wall down and climbs out. Based on instinct, the chick knows rebuild it. In total, the chick lives inside the nest for about eight or nine months.

Once it finally leaves the tree, its parents prepare the nest for the next round of chicks.

Zoo animals don’t eat the diets made by the commissary workers on the same day they are prepared.

“What we’re preparing today will be fed out tomorrow, " Metcalf said.

Because the meals mimic what and when the animals eat in the wild, many eat at different times. Every morning, the keepers pick up all the food for the day from the commissary.

Certain birds, such the rhino hornbills, eat twice a day, while many of the big cats don’t eat every day. Most animals eat in the morning, but nocturnal animals aren’t fed until they wake up later in the day.

Some animals, such as flamingos, stingrays and wallabies, are fed premade pellets supplied by specific vendors. However, many of the animals’ diets are made up of fruits, vegetables, meat or other raw ingredients.

Metcalf said all of the ingredients are fresh and high in quality.

“More so now and, here at the Phoenix Zoo specifically, we get human-grade produce,” she said. “We’re getting the same vendors and the same quality that they get in restaurants.”

With carefully prepared meals personalized according to their dietary needs, it seems like the animals eat better than many people.