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Broccoli Is for Parakeets

A look at feeding the animals at the zoo

There is a hidden restaurant near the south end of Grant Park, in a tan-painted aluminum warehouse. No silverware, no tablecloths. If the place had a menu, it would feature colossal rats and quarter-inch crickets.

In the kitchen one morning, a man stood over a red-stained cutting board, slicing beef from raw bones. He stacked the bones in a plastic tub. They would be served without fanfare or seasoning to a party of Asian small-clawed otters for purposes of dental hygiene. This is easier than brushing their teeth.

The man with the knife was Rob Nehra, and otters are only a sideline. His first job is feeding the Zoo Atlanta kitchen’s most difficult customer: the giant panda. Hence his title—bamboo technician.

Imagine living on plywood. Not many calories in plywood. You’d have to eat all day to survive. Pandas basically do this. They eat bamboo all day. So men like Nehra drive all over Georgia collecting the stuff. The zoo has a hotline you can call to donate bamboo (404-624-5884). The technicians cut nearly 500 pounds a day with handsaws and loppers and bring it back for storage in a walk-in refrigerator. Then it’s served in a near-constant stream to the zoo’s three ravenous pandas.

“Everything, human quality,” kitchen manager Rytis Daujotas said, waving at the lettuce and kale and green beans laid out on a stainless steel table in front of me. “Everything is like in a restaurant.”

More than 1,000 animals of more than 200 species depend on this restaurant, which is why the dry storage room contains such a strange assortment of goods. Shredded beet pulp for giraffes. Feed made of ground soybean hulls for tortoises. Popcorn.

Popcorn?

“Popcorn is a treat for apes,” Daujotas said. In cold weather and thunderstorms, keepers hide popcorn around the indoor dens so the apes can hunt for treasure.

We walked back to the main kitchen, where I saw a green binder open on a prep table—a guide to the regulars’ favorite foods. Parakeets demand 198 grams of broccoli every day. The crowned crane gets 62 grams of frozen crickets and mealworms, served in a container with peanuts. (Behind me, a nutrition technician was shelling peanuts for this very reason.) Regular-sized crickets are too large an entree for baby frogs; they need pinhead crickets. An old gorilla needs his zucchini boiled. Alligators prefer rabbits; vipers devour rats. When the black rhinoceros needs medicine, his keepers hide it in a peanut butter sandwich. A sunset-colored parrot named Solito requires a particular blend of frozen vegetables.

“Pick out the corn,” the binder said. “He won’t eat it.”

Nutrition technician Sara Lee Kim said guests have no trouble sending their orders back. Language barrier or no, they find ways to express their wishes.

“We used to have a black lemur that hated broccoli so much that if he even saw it he would throw his bowl,” she said.

Photograph courtesy of Zoo Atlanta

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