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Good Eats at the Zoo

Animal nutritionist Shana Lavin serves up healthy fare at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo.

Video: Good Eats at the Zoo — Lincoln Park Zoo nutrition manager Shana Lavin discusses the challenge of satisfying some of the animal kingdom's pickiest eaters. See more videos from Northwestern News.

In the savanna yard of Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, Sabrena the giraffe cranes her neck to reach a basket affixed to a tree at her eye level. The basket is filled with a high-fiber, energy-dense herbivore grain. In the wild she wouldn't bend down in search of food. Giraffes also tend to be wary of their surroundings. So the savanna yard tries to mimic the environment Sabrena, a Baringo giraffe (a species from sub-Saharan Africa), would live in, including the details of giraffes' eating habits.

Lincoln Park's giraffes are picky, says Shana Lavin (WCAS99), manager of the zoo's Nutrition Center. And a syndrome in captive giraffes results in their being underweight, so a balanced diet and well-placed meals are very important.

Lavin creates and maintains diets for the zoo's 1,200 animals, and giraffes aren't the only tough customers.

The notoriously fussy penguins, for example, won't eat if they don't like the smell or size of a certain fish. "They're just like children," Lavin says of the choosy eaters.

Then there's Lavin's favorite furry friend, Toby, the red panda who would eat only red things, such as red grapes and plums. Lavin slowly added foods that weren't red, such as mangos and papayas, to his diet, and today Toby eats almost anything — and any color food — Lavin feeds him.

In addition to managing 250 different diets, Lavin performs nutritional research and develops guidelines for animal diets. She also manages the food and supply budget for the whole zoo.

In the kitchen, where Lavin's staff prepares the food and ships it off to the zoo's different animal houses, there are large industrial coolers filled with hundreds of pounds of produce and meat, from cow femurs to frozen lizards. Lavin must follow the same strict U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines required of restaurants for food preparation. Staff must wear gloves when handling food, and there are color-coded cutting boards: green for produce, red for meat and tan for fish.

"We have to keep our animals healthy," says Lavin, who once appeared on Bravo's cult favorite Top Chef as a judge on a zoo-themed cooking competition. Yet animal nutrition is so complex and little understood as a field that she considers human nutrition "easy — no offense to dieticians."

Lavin works closely with the zoo's veterinarians who have general knowledge of diet and health. But Lavin provides specialized knowledge, so "the nutritionist and the vet work hand in glove," says Kathryn Gamble, director of veterinary services at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

"We bounce ideas off each other," Lavin says. "For example, if there is a medical issue in a particular animal, we discuss how diet may play a part or how a nutritional supplement may be therapeutic."

To help her compile diets for animals in the zoo, she draws information from related animals with diets that have been studied extensively; so to know what to feed a big cat, such as a lion, she would look at a house cat's nutrient requirements.

"They have comparable gut morphology, scaled to body mass, and comparable nutrient requirements," Lavin explains.

Detective work is another crucial part of animal nutrition. Unlike a human nutritionist, Lavin doesn't have the ability to communicate with her patients. So she relies on observations of how animals react. For example, through careful keeper observation Lavin realized that Marta the black leopard was allergic to lamb and other meats but not duck, venison or rabbit.

"We have a responsibility to offer these animals the best possible care, not only as individuals but also as representatives for their populations and species," Lavin says.

—Alice Truong (J10)

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Shana Lavin feeds a meerkat at Lincoln Park Zoo.Photo by Greg Neise
Shana with food
Shana Lavin coordinates the diets for the 1,200 animals that represent 230 species at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.Photo by Greg Neise