Fat Cats


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Once, at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., I watched an orangutan vomit on the glass wall of its enclosure. I was standing next to a group of schoolchildren, and they laughed in response. Then the primate stuck out its tongue, pressed it to the glass, and dragged it through the vomit. The children screamed. We moved to the next exhibit, where this same group and I watched a gorilla stick its finger first into its anus, and then into its mouth. As one can probably guess, the schoolkids went berserk.

This happened a few years ago, but it wasn’t until I recently attended a meeting on zoo animal obesity that I learned these separate-but-equally-unappealing behaviors have scientific names: regurgitation and reingestion, and coprophagy, respectively. The conference was the Crissey Zoological Nutrition Symposium, held at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. The bearer of this information (to me, at least) was Richard Bergl of the North Carolina Zoological Park. Reingestion and coprophagy, it turns out, are not the natural activities of close-but-still-very-much-different-from-us animals. They are instead signs that something’s up with an animal’s diet, usually that it doesn’t have the sensation of feeling “full.”

As part of his talk, “Behavioral Changes in Captive Gorillas Following the Introduction of a Biscuit-Free Diet,” Dr. Bergl told the zoo nutritionists in attendance why this is bad: “It’s very hard for the pubic to get over seeing a gorilla repeatedly reingesting, or defecating and then consuming its own feces,” he said. “If you’re able to reduce that, these animals become much better ambassadors for natural history and the conservation of the species.”

I found it slightly depressing to think that a zoogoing public’s spirit of conservation for an animal could be shaped by whether or not that animal eats its own feces, but I know Dr. Bergl is right. This is because, when it comes to our interactions with animals, we have very high expectations for what counts as an authentic experience. Domestic animals? We want to pet them or play with them. Wild animals? We want to identify them or photograph them or be the first to point them out to the people with us. Zoo animals? We want them to do something, anything. And the most pleasing “thing” a zoo animal can do is eat. When it does, we want it to be something of the Earth, not of the animal’s own stomach.

Spend two days listening to animal nutritionists discuss obesity in zoos and you realize that, when it comes to food, captive animals face a lot of the same problems humans do. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats, for example, are not as cheap as processed foods. Zoo animals do not require as much time to obtain food as their wild counterparts do, and can therefore tend to eat too quickly. Like doting mothers, some zookeepers (the people who actually interact with the animals, that is, as opposed to the nutritionists who come up with their diets) will want to keep a little meat on their animals’ bones, in case they become sick. And you know how at parties you sometimes feel like one person is eating all the shrimp? Well, animals that are fed as groups can feel that way, too.

Still, animal feeding has come a long way since Western zoos appeared in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Life at the Zoo: Behind the Scenes with the Animal Doctors (which is not a children’s book, despite the gee-whiz title), Phillip T. Robinson describes a history of feeding zoo animals that seems to be guided by an “Anything goes!” narrative. “The public brought its surplus food to the bear pits of old European city centers to support these charitable attractions, and this tradition carried forward into the twentieth century,” Robinson writes. “Leftover bakery goods, second-class fruits, and vegetables from produce vendors and fallen animals from slaughterhouses and farms became the everyday staples for many zoo animals.” When feeding costs exploded in the 1920s at the San Diego Zoo, the zoo requested the public send rats and mice to feed the reptiles. When Robinson arrived there as director of veterinary medicine program, the big cats weren’t even fed on Mondays; nobody quite knew why, other than that was the way it had always been done. Nutritionists didn’t begin appearing in zoos until the 1970s.

Visitors no longer bring food to the zoo, but that doesn’t mean their fascination with watching animals eat has ebbed. In fact, the entrances to most zoos list on either guide maps or signs the times in any given day when visitors can, say, watch a keeper feed fish to penguins or small dishes of blood to bats. These are among the most popular activities at zoos.

And, to be sure, the public’s involvement in feeding hasn’t disappeared entirely. I, for example, have never been an animal nutritionist or a zookeeper, and am therefore not professionally trained to feed animals at the zoo. But that doesn’t mean I don’t! We have what’s known today as the petting zoo to thank for that. In 1938, the London Zoo opened the world’s first children’s zoo; Philadelphia would give America its first that same year. Since then, visitors at zoos all over have been paying 25 cents to feed a handful of dry pellets to goats and sheep and pigs .

If we love watching animals eat, we love feeding them even more. I once paid $5 at the San Francisco Zoo to feed a giraffe. You’d give a teenager your money, and he would give you a piece of lettuce. You walked up to the giraffe and it would immediately swoop its head down and eat the leaf in a flash. Amazing. I later tried to feed another giraffe at a more down-on-its-luck zoo in rural Maryland called Plumpton Park Zoo. Plumpton Park felt a little more…homespun than most zoos you visit: The swans were kept in an algae-filled swimming pool with a diving board; a man came out of nowhere to ask me and a friend if we wanted to see a baby water buffalo, and then took us into a dark barn to show it to us. The giraffe I paid to feed there never ended up coming close enough to the edge of its enclosure for me do so (it had no keeper making sure it was always ready to accept food, as San Francisco’s giraffe did), but boy if the prospect that he would wasn’t enough to keep me trying.

More frequently, I visit a zoo that’s deep in the woods of New Jersey’s sandy Pine Barrens called Popcorn Park Zoo. Popcorn Park is technically more a refuge than an actual zoo, its animals either rescued from the wild or discarded by former owners. For a few dollars you can buy a box of unsalted, unbuttered popcorn to feed them. Some of the animals appear a bit rough — there are pigs with gnarled faces, an emu with only one eye. But they all love popcorn. The sheep will ram one another to get at your hand. If your throw lands popcorn just outside the black bears’ cage, the bears will reach out for it. The deer are leery, but if you stand still and give them time, they’ll eventually come over.

Oftentimes, one box is not enough to meet all your feeding-animal desires. If there is debate over life’s greatest pleasure (in my life, at least), it comes down to watching a giant rescued bear gingerly drag a piece of popcorn into its cage and pick it up with its tongue, or having a baby deer do the same thing out of your hand.

Why? What’s the appeal behind watching animals eat, or feeding them?

It can’t be about having an experience with nature. At the Crissey symposium, in fact, sprinkled among talks on “Nutritional Management of an Obese Spectacled Bear” and “Lipid Keratopathy in Captive Moray Eels” was discussion on just how unnatural everything the nutritionists discussed was. For many years, commercially produced biscuits were all the rage in zoo feeding programs. These helped nutritionists ensure that animals were receiving the particular nutrients, and in the amounts, that their species require. Such dense concentrations of calories, however, meant that animals needed a lesser quantity by weight than if they were eating, say, leafy green vegetables. Too many biscuits in a diet and you’ve got a hungry gorilla with his finger…well, you get the idea.

But even with a push to develop diets of the foods that more closely resemble what an animal would find in the wild, nobody should mistake any zoo diet as true-to-life. The vegetables we grow, for example, are cultivated for human palettes, and will never resemble what a gorilla finds foraging in the African jungle. Indeed, when the representative of one zoo described a diet as “natural,” a nutritionist from Britain’s Chester Zoo, Andrea Fidgett, objected. She pointed out with a candor not usually seen in zoo professionals that there was no such thing as “natural” in a zoo diet: “Unless and until zoos are able to replicate the exact seasonal, temporal, spatial, and nutritional complexity of diets encountered in the wild, animals will be faced with choices they haven’t evolved to make.”

Maybe watching animals eat and feeding them when we can is appealing not in spite of the artifice of the act, but because of it. These scenes erase for visitors any illusion that what they’re watching is a tableau of what they’d see in the wild. We can look at a lemur resting on a tree branch and imagine that we have a fairly close approximation of how a lemur would look if resting in a tree in the jungle. But soon the door painted with trees in the back opens, fluorescent light shines through, and a person in khaki shorts and boots enters. (Why zookeepers always have to dress like they’re on safari, I’ll never know). As soon as we see the lemur grab at large Romaine leaves, and hunt for other food that the keeper hides in “enrichment tools” like paper bags and cardboard boxes that encourage “foraging,” we grasp the unnaturalness of it all.

This can be OK. In his essay “Why Look at Animals?” John Berger argues that the disappearance of animals from our daily lives has marginalized them to the point that the zoo can do nothing but disappoint. But it’s possible that what’s happening in the zoo, at least, isn’t further marginalization, but rather a bringing of the animals closer to us and the artifice of our lives. People once sought to escape the perceived ills of a modern, industrialized, urban society by stepping outside that society and connecting with an idea of nature through camping, walking tours, birdwatching, and other outdoor activities. Is it possible that that works in both directions, that we’re seeking to mitigate those same ills not by fleeing that society for an idea of nature, but by incorporating the idea into that society?

I was recently at the Philadelphia Zoo, which has at the center of its reptile house a cobra in a case made to look like an abandoned temple in the cartoonish spirit of Indiana Jones. There are fake stone walls, plastic plants along the hall, and even a floor-to-ceiling totem of the snake. A few other visitors and I watched the cobra, and were all excited when it began to slide down a tree branch toward a pool of water below. His tongue shook and he swayed back and forth over the surface of the water. We were all hoping he would dip even the tip in, our level of satisfaction now dependent on whether or not a snake took a drink of water.

Maybe the act of watching them eat or feeding them becomes a sort of intimate compact between us and the animals we’re watching or feeding: Cobra, you’re about to take a drink of water from a fake pool in an India-themed enclosure, and I’m about to go get chicken fingers and a Coke from the cafeteria. In other words, we’re all in this together. • 9 January 2008