Think planning the meals for your kid is tough? Try choosing what pandas, cheetahs, and elephants will eat.
“We definitely have animals with likes and dislikes,” says Mike Maslanka, senior nutritionist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. “We balance the diet on paper. It looks really good, meets all the nutritional requirements. Then you put it in front of the animal, and it doesn’t eat it. Or it only eats two ingredients and leaves two ingredients. So now we have to go back to the drawing board.
“That type of interplay happens every day.”
Think of Maslanka, 49, as the head chef for about 2,700 animals across 390 species. Though he doesn’t usually directly feed the animals himself, he oversees the team in charge of nutrition operations. In other words, he decides what’s on the menu. Maslanka estimates there are only 20 full-time zoo nutritionists in the United States.
So, what’s an example of a picky-eater species?
“Maned wolves,” he says. “They have a largely kibble diet, similar to what you might feed to your dog. Some wolves won’t touch that kibble for anything. Others won’t eat papaya for anything, but can’t get enough grapes.”
Dishing out the zoo’s food requires all sorts of considerations. For example, feeding the animals isn’t as simple as just ringing the dinner bell; instead, the staff tends to want the animals to replicate the same surveying and foraging behaviors they would undertake in the wild. That can require placing the animal’s food in puzzle feeders, under cardboard boxes, or scattering it beneath hay.
Another, ickier, consideration: While the kitchen at a restaurant for humans may have dead animals in the form of meat, the zoo’s kitchen also has live animals, such as insects, including crickets and mealworms. The nutrition team will engage in “gut loading,” a process where they feed those live insects with vitamins and nutrients. The vitamin-enhanced insects are then fed to several of the zoo’s animals, often to the reptiles.
And then there’s the consideration of how to spend your money, as taxpayers front the zoo’s annual food costs, which now exceed $1 million.
“Most of our meat is sourced from either Central Nebraska or Canada, depending on the type of meat. We estimate the cost of every animal coming to the zoo, so we have our eyes wide open,” Maslanka says. “We won’t spare expense, but we also make sure to do it in a responsible way for taxpayers.”
COVID provided challenges in terms of supply-chain issues. You know how restaurant-goers have been beefing about, well, the lack of beef and other staple ingredients, plus slow service to boot?
“We’re still kind of dealing with that,” says Maslanka. “There are ripples much like we experience as humans, like a lack of chicken in restaurants or high prices of steak. Right now, chicken has taken a hit because of staffing challenges at the processing level [at the meat plants].”
Growing up in rural Southeastern Pennsylvania, Maslanka wanted to be a veterinarian since the age of 5. He was still pursuing that path upon graduating from Virginia Tech with a degree in wildlife, fish, and wildlands science and management. “But then I didn’t get into med school,” he says. “So I had to come up with a Plan B.”
Though he’d worked on a dairy farm as a college student, he’d never even taken a single dairy-science class, yet that’s what he ended up studying in graduate school at University of Minnesota. Why? “I’d eaten ice cream,” says Maslanka. From there, he worked as a nutritionist at several zoos, including Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago, Memphis Zoo, Fort Worth Zoo, and Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.
Since 2007, he’s worked at the Smithsonian, which actually pioneered Maslanka’s current role by hiring the country’s first-ever official zoo nutritionist back in 1978, a man named Olav Oftedal. That name might not mean anything to you, but one detects a hint of awe in Maslanka’s voice when he mentions, “I’m actually sitting in his office.”
Today, Maslanka calls Northern Virginia home, residing in Fairfax. “I head for I-66; I can either go left to the zoo or right to Front Royal,” referring to the NoVA location of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, which studies and breeds dozens of nearly extinct species. “It’s fairly convenient to be between the two.”
He usually arrives at the zoo bright and early, before 6 a.m.
“Our mission as a department is to make sure all the animals are fed on a daily basis, with good diets, well-balanced for their nutritional needs and also their mental needs,” he explains. “So I try to be in when my folks get in, making sure that I’m in the physical space if anything comes up.”
Maslanka has two pets, a cat named Macallan (like the single-malt whiskey) and a box turtle named Ellie. Does feeding them just feel like more time spent at work? “In the position I’m in, although we do a lot of clinical nutrition, I don’t do a whole lot of diet-feeding myself,” he answers. “So my box turtle and cat are actually a welcome part of my day.”
Alas, Maslanka’s expertise in animal nutrition does not make him an expert in human nutrition as well.
“No, no, no!” he laughs. “My colleagues think I have the worst diet in the world. My guilty pleasure is McDonald’s fries. Plenty of days, a quick breakfast is a Pop-Tart, so I can move on with my day.”
Feeding the Flocks
Would we humans enjoy any of the diets his animals eat?
Probably not—not even the fruit. “Fruits cultivated for human consumption are high in sugar and low in fiber. Fruits animals would consume in the wild don’t look anything like that—instead, they’re high in fiber and low in sugar,” Maslanka says. “So if we tried to consume the fruits those animals are exposed to in the wild, we wouldn’t find them palatable.”
How did the zoo animals react to the literal billions of cicadas that emerged in May and June?
Sometimes, the animals won’t eat the food Maslanka creates for them, but then they’ll happily devour pretty much the grossest animal alive.
“We kept our eye out for this, since we knew it was going to happen,” Maslanka says. “We have animals that will eat even the annual broods.” (The cicadas from May and June were part of Brood X, which reemerges precisely every 17 years.) “Some of our animals thoroughly enjoyed the cicadas and ate them in quantity: red river hogs, we suspect maybe our otters, our ravens for a while, our kori bustard [a large bird native to Africa].”
Some of the animals, though, didn’t see any cicadas whatsoever.
“In the past 17-year period, there were areas of the zoo that didn’t have trees but do now, or vice versa. So there are pockets of the zoo where we have cicadas, and others where we don’t have any at all,” Maslanka says. “That impacted consumption and access.”
Is there any equivalent of “dessert” for the animals?
Every known living thing on earth—not just animals—requires water to survive. And since ice is just frozen water, just as humans love Popsicles, animals love flavored tubes of ice. That’s their dessert. For the panda Bei Bei’s third birthday, though, the zoo staff went one step further, presenting him with an entire ice cake festooned with apples, pears, sweet potatoes, carrots, sugar cane, and bamboo.
What’s the most expensive animal to feed?
Maslanka hasn’t calculated it precisely, but he suggests several leading possibilities.
“Tough to say,” he admits. “A group of flamingos on a daily basis is expensive to feed, primarily because of the diet ingredients themselves, not necessarily how much each individual flamingo has eaten.” Flamingos primarily eat aquatic invertebrates, including shrimp.
“But elephants are big animals; they also eat a lot of food,” Maslanka observes. “And some of our big cats (including Sumatran tigers and African lions) eat pounds and pounds and pounds of meat.”
OK, but can you tell us more about the pandas?
The zoo’s undisputed stars are so popular that the zoo’s website features a webcam trained on them at all times. New male panda Xiao Qi Ji (SHIAU-chi-ji) was born in August 2020 and has been the biggest attraction since the zoo’s post-pandemic May 2021 reopening.
Pandas spend most of their day eating bamboo, to the tune of up to 40 pounds a day. Several times a week, Maslanka and his team chop off hundreds of pounds of bamboo stalks on stands, located both on the zoo’s grounds and across multiple private properties throughout greater DC and Northern Virginia (with the owners’ permission, of course).
This story originally ran in our September issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.