Pumpkin Season Means Good Times and Happy Eating for the Animals at the Dallas Zoo

Categories: Interviews

Dallas Zoo
Yesterday I drove past a pumpkin patch that had at least 200 large round squashes still remaining. Their lonely abandonment made me a bit sad. Would they ever serve a purpose in this world? Last year the Dallas Arboretum told me they send some of their leftover pumpkins to local zoos. So, I called the Dallas Zoo to get more details on how pumpkins are worked into the animals' diets.

Kerri Slifka is the curator of nutrition at the zoo. She grew up in western Illinois, earned a bachelor's degree in animal science at University of Illinois in Urbana and then went on to get her masters in human nutrition from University of Illinois in Chicago. She moved to Dallas in 2006 and is one of only 15 full-time zoo nutritionist around the country.

(NOTE: Do NOT take your old pumpkins to the zoo. It's not that easy. You wouldn't feed your children food from a stranger. Well, OK, on Halloween you might, but the zoo won't. Which probably reveals something interesting about parenting or zoo keepers, but we're not sure what. )

What's fun about Slifka is how enthusiastic she was talking about her animals. It's great when you meet someone who you think has a really cool job and they think so too. For most of the interview I just listened in fascination, so I'm going to skip repeating my questions here and just let her take it:

We try incorporate novel or seasonal foods in to the animals' diets where it's appropriate. So this time of year, pumpkins are great.
They're so versatile, we can do a lot of things beyond just feeding them to the animals.

For some animals, we'll substitute pumpkins in place of sweet potatoes or they may get them as a novel food.
And for animals that need something softer to eat, we can steam the pumpkins.

Our primate staff can actually cook the pumpkins how they like.
So, they may decide to take the steamed pumpkin and add spices to it. Obviously they don't add unnecessary calories to the pumpkins -- like make a casserole.

The cool thing about pumpkins is that they're also an enrichment device.
We can hollow them out and hide the animal's diet inside it. So, you might see a pumpkin in an enclosure of an animal that doesn't eat any sort vegetation.

For instance, when it starts to get colder, we make oatmeal for some of our primates and give it to them in the hollowed pumpkins.

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