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Direct Quote: Chowing Down at the San Antonio Zoo

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San Antonio Zoo Commissary Coordinator Katie Biesenbach
Jen Reel
San Antonio Zoo Commissary Coordinator Katie Biesenbach.

The San Antonio Zoo houses more than 9,000 animals of 750 species, from Mexican dumpy frogs to Asian elephants, including one of the country’s largest collections of birds. Zoo Commissary Coordinator Katie Biesenbach feeds them all.

“I start my day between 4 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. and manage a staff of six people. I order all the animal food from a huge list of vendors. We process it, bag it, label it and then deliver it to each department every morning. We are a 365-day operation, 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day. We are USDA inspected so I run this kitchen like a kitchen in a restaurant, but even better. We have diet sheets that are broken down by department and animal. Everything’s weighed out or measured in some way for consistency, and also to help regulate if the animal gets too fat, too skinny. It’s very detailed: 23 grams of squash, 172 grams of spinach, an eighth of a cup of raisins, for example. We give them variety so they’re not bored. We also have a fast day for the big cats because they don’t eat every day in the wild and it gives them a chance to cleanse their systems. They have a bone day to help clean their teeth.

“We go through a lot of lettuce, but not iceberg; it has very little nutritional value. We have kale, collard greens, spinach, apples, bananas, melons, berries, grapes, papaya, squash, cucumber, corn. And of course we have the meat section for our carnivores. Some of it comes ground in a five-pound log and some of it is huge slabs of chunk meat that we cut up for the animals. We have a company called Mazuri that manufactures diets specifically for zoos, and I’ve got a whole cooler back there of various types of food specific for the animals’ needs. There’s kangaroo/wallaby, flamingo complete, flamingo breeder, the entire life stage of the pheasant from the time it hatches to the time it breeds. We have four different types of primate biscuits. At Mazuri, they send someone out into the wild to analyze what these animals were eating and then they make pellets and biscuits to fit those needs.

“Just recently we’ve done several diet changes for winter because some of the carnivores need more meat. It’s colder and they need it to keep warm. We’ve had throughout the years a lot of geriatric animals so we steam the produce, because the teeth are one of the first things to go. Currently we have a very old hyena who’s gone off his diet and we just feed him what he likes every day. Because when they get to that point, when they’re so old, it’s their quality of life that’s most important to us. So we feed him whole rats or chunk meat, which he really loves.

“We do a lot of quick modifications around here, especially with the sick animals. We had a kangaroo with toxoplasmosis [a parasite], so at that point it’s, ‘how do we get the medicine into him?’ They’re going to fight it if it tastes nasty, so we gave it to him through peanut butter sandwiches. He loved them. Right now we have a diabetic primate so we’re playing with her diet, trying to figure out what she’ll eat, but also taking out all the foods that put sugar in her blood. Garbanzo beans are probably the newest things I’ve bought for her. And I always keep Pedialyte [an electrolyte solution] on hand in case somebody gets dehydrated. The bird department also uses it during breeding season for its babies.

“I grew up with pets all the time, and I was usually the child bringing them home asking, ‘Mommy, can we keep it?’ I have always loved animals. I came to this zoo as a kid, and I still have old pictures from then. I loved being here. I still love being here.” Interview has been edited and condensed.

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Jen Reel was an Observer intern before joining the staff in July 2010, first as Web Editor, and most recently as Multimedia Editor. She received a Masters in Journalism with a concentration in Photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was co-chair for the student chapter of the National Press Photographers Association. She has worked in the non-profit sector for the Peruvian-American Medical Society and has been published in Utne Reader magazine, the Village Voice and Pitchfork Music.