Zoos go back to nature for diets

The secret to healthy and happy zoo animals is a balanced diet and Dubbo’s Western Plains Zoo shapes up pretty well, according to zoo nutritionist Debra McDonald.
HangZhou Night Net

The veterinary nutritionist, from the Bronx Zoo in New York, is visiting Western Plains Zoo as part of the annual Australasian Regional Association of Zoo Parks and Aquaria conference to give a series of lectures on healthy eating for animals in zoos.

Born and raised in Victoria, Ms McDonald has spent the past 12 months working in the US.

“There are no zoo nutritionists in Australia so to get the experience I needed I went to America to work with the best in the world,” she said. “Basically I’m here to give an insight into what needs to be considered in the way of diet for zoo animals.”

Ms McDonald said the Bronx Zoo was vastly different from Western Plains Zoo.

“The Bronx Zoo is absolutely huge – bigger than Dubbo’s zoo,” she said.

“Because of the winter snows over there they have a lot of indoor exhibitions which are managed quite intensively and there are also a number of open-range areas.

“They’ve just spent $40 million on a new Congo exhibit for their gorillas – we could almost build a whole zoo here in Australia for half that.”

As the nature of zoos had changed in the past 20 years so too had the nutritional needs of the animals, Ms McDonald said.

“In the past there wasn’t a big focus on breeding animals in zoos – the zoo could just go out and catch another one from the wild if they wanted,” she said.

“But now zoos are trying to encourage animals to breed in captivity and release endangered species back into the wild, so the diets of zoo animals need to be less processed and more natural.”

Ms McDonald will return to the US next week to work for a few months before returning home to set up Australia’s first zoo nutrition centre.

This article first appeared in Hangzhou Night Net.