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Zoo Chef

How Lisa Cuffy helps a zoo feed thousands of hungry animals 

GRAHM S. JONES/COLUMBUS ZOO AND AQUARIUM

Lisa Cuffy helps prepare food for 800 animal species at the Columbus Zoo.

Stubby, a manatee at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, gobbles up 45 kilograms (100 pounds) of lettuce every day. Hanna, a reticulated python, swallows one dead rabbit every few weeks.

Lisa Cuffy knows exactly what’s on the menu for these animals—and the 800 other species at the zoo. That’s because Cuffy works at the zoo’s animal nutrition center. She helps prepare meals for more than 10,000 zoo inhabitants. 

Stubby is a manatee. She lives at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio. She gobbles up 45 kilograms (100 pounds) of lettuce every day. Hanna is a reticulated python. She swallows one dead rabbit every few weeks.

Lisa Cuffy knows exactly what’s on the menu for these animals. And she knows what the 800 other species at the zoo will be eating. That’s because Cuffy works at the zoo’s animal nutrition center. She helps make meals for more than 10,000 zoo animals. 

Picky Eaters

Feeding a zoo is a big job, so Cuffy starts her day early. By 6 a.m., she’s chopping fruits and veggies for orangutans and cutting eucalyptus branches for koalas. Then she defrosts animal carcasses for the zoo’s carnivores, or meat eaters. 

The nutrition staff keeps each animal’s diet as similar as possible to what it would eat in the wild. And some animals have unique needs. As rhinos age, for example, their teeth wear down. That makes it hard for them to chew. Zoo staff give older rhinos ground-up hay that’s easy for them to eat. 

Feeding a zoo is a big job. Cuffy starts her day early. 

She’s chopping fruits and veggies for orangutans by 6 a.m. Next, she cuts eucalyptus branches for koalas. Then she defrosts meat for the zoo’s carnivores, or meat eaters. 

Each animal’s diet needs to be similar to what it would eat in the wild. And some animals have special needs. For example, rhinos’ teeth wear down as they age. That makes it hard for them to chew. Zoo staff give older rhinos ground-up hay. It’s easier for them to eat. 

GRAHM S. JONES/COLUMBUS ZOO AND AQUARIUM

For manatees, pumpkins are an unusual—and entertaining—food.

Fun With Food

The meals Cuffy prepares aren’t just good for animals’ bodies. Interesting food presented in unusual ways keeps their minds healthy too.

For instance, Cuffy might give a leopard a grapefruit, which is not part of the carnivore’s regular diet. “She may just bat it around,” says Cuffy. “But if she bites into it, she’ll find that it’s sour. And that will be interesting for her.”

To keep animals stimulated, zoo staff often hide food in different parts of the animals’ pens. That way the animals have to forage, or search for food—just like they do in the wild.

The meals that Cuffy makes aren’t just good for animals’ bodies. New and unusual dishes keep their minds healthy too.

For instance, Cuffy might give a leopard a grapefruit. It’s not part of the carnivore’s normal diet. “She may just bat it around,” says Cuffy. “But if she bites into it, she’ll find that it’s sour. And that will be interesting for her.”

Zoo staff often hide food in different parts of the animals’ pens. That way the animals have to forage, or search for food. That’s the same thing they do in the wild.

GRAHM S. JONES/COLUMBUS ZOO AND AQUARIUM

Cuffy delivers bins of food to animals around the zoo.

Getting Creative

Sometimes the nutrition team has to develop entirely new meals. In 2015, the zoo welcomed a baby polar bear named Nora. But soon after Nora was born, her mother stopped feeding her milk. 

Polar bear births at zoos are rare, so no one knew what was best to replace the milk. Cuffy’s team first tried a formula created at another zoo. But it wasn’t helping Nora grow. The staff had to come up with a new recipe to keep Nora alive. 

Sometimes the nutrition team has to create whole new meals. The zoo welcomed a baby polar bear named Nora in 2015. But Nora’s mother stopped feeding her milk soon after she was born. 

Polar bear births at zoos are rare. So no one knew what was best to replace the milk. Cuffy’s team first tried a formula made at another zoo. But it wasn’t helping Nora grow. The staff had to come up with a new recipe to keep Nora alive. 

GRAHM S. JONES/COLUMBUS ZOO AND AQUARIUM

Cuffy’s team created a formula to keep Nora, a baby polar bear, alive.

Polar bear milk has a lot of fat and protein to help cubs grow. The team started with a protein-rich formula normally used to feed kittens. They mixed in fatty safflower oil and other ingredients. Nora loved it! She quickly put on weight. The team shared the recipe with other zoos.

Cuffy’s job is exhausting, but it pays off when she gets to deliver meals to each exhibit. “I love to see the animals eating the food that I had a part in making,” she says.

Polar bear milk has a lot of fat and protein to help cubs grow. The team started with a protein-rich formula. It’s normally used to feed kittens. They mixed in fatty safflower oil and other ingredients. Nora loved it! She quickly put on weight. The team shared the recipe with other zoos.

Cuffy’s job is tiring. But it pays off when she gets to deliver meals to each exhibit. “I love to see the animals eating the food that I had a part in making,” she says.

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