Zookeepers diligently prepare animal meals at National Zoo

In a four-star kitchen, people are whipping up restaurant grade meals. Only instead of a pinch of this, and a dash of that, these chefs are meticulously weighing every morsel of insects, rodents and dead animal carcasses as they prep food for the animals at the National Zoo.

"We deal with crickets and meal worms and mice and rats and rabbits,” said Mike Maslanka, the head nutritionist.

The team of twelve at the Zoo's commissary starts before sunrise to turn out 400 different specially tailored diets.

These aren't meals for the faint of heart: They order beef blood by the gallons, frozen mice by the pound, and as many live crickets as they can.


Preparing meals for the 3,000 zoo animals is more mad scientist than classic sous chef.

“We’ve done some pretty interesting things with bones, blood, whole prey for vulture appreciation day,” Maslanka said.

One of the few zoos across the country that has a dedicated nutrition department, staffers combine what the animals might find in the wild with fresh fruits and veggies.

“We can formulate the best diet in the world, but if the animals don't eat it, it doesn't make a hill of beans,” Maslanka said.

They may not be taking to beans, but zookeepers say you'd be surprised at just what is eating the delicacies you’d find on your dinner plate.

“We have a land crab, we give him sweet potato, we give him shrimp, sweet potato, carrots, they eat a lot of vegetation outside. Our giant African millipede, they get lettuce and sweet potatoes also,” said zookeeper Tammy Dewitt.

Captive tortoises have had trouble balancing their weight (yes, there are obese tortoises), so nutritionists and keepers keep a close eye on their intake, even providing them with nutritious food like carrots.

Cards break down what every animal should eat based on constant monitoring of fluctuations in weight and changes in appetite. Whether it's piecing together a primate happy meal or conjuring up a bloody birthday treat, these dedicated nutritionists do so while stockpiling a supply that could sustain a D.C. disaster.

“We always have to be ready for emergencies, in Washington, D.C.” Maslanka said. “At some point we'll be faced with not being able to get diet items in so we'll run a supply anywhere between three months and a year.”