Though there are more than 230 accredited zoos and aquariums across the nation, only about a quarter offer nutrition programs. Fewer still — about a handful — conduct research related to animal nutrition.
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium happens to be one of those that does, and SNR graduate Kelly Kappen is the nutrition manager there, working in the Bill and Berniece Grewcock Center for Conservation and Research.
“We really have a one-of-a-kind research program here for nutrition, and even a very rare one, just focused on nutrition compared to other (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) accredited institutions,” Kappen said.
The nutrition laboratory at Omaha Zoo is considered a leader in comparative nutrition research among the AZA-accredited zoos, according to the Omaha Zoo’s website, and it works in collaboration with other zoos, feed companies and universities on its research. All of its research is targeted to exotic species as most diets have been developed and formulated based on established research for domestic animals, such as cats, dogs, horses, cattle, swine and poultry. Which zoo animals obviously are not.
Part of Kappen’s job is testing and running analysis daily to see exactly what and how many nutrients the exotic animals are absorbing through what they eat, and she then makes changes in the day-to-day diets to address any gaps. This means analyzing the food make-up before it’s given to the animals and again after it’s digested.
Another part is conducting quality control on commercial products brought in for the animals.
“When you buy cereal at the grocery store, it gives you a very clear analysis of what's in it,” she said. “We buy some commercial products like that that include their own sort of nutrition facts label, but some of what we buy — like whole raw fish — doesn't come with that label on it.”
That means Kappen is analyzing shipments of hay for protein, fiber, calcium and phosphorus content, and she’s also testing fish for fat and protein content, which varies by season.
“We want to make sure that if there any large differences between different shipments of fish that we get in that we’re adjusting diet accordingly,” she said.
When she isn’t working on quality control, Kappen is focused on making improvements to the animals lives through nutrition. One of the biggest current projects at the zoo is expanding the number of trees and bushes for the plant-eating animals that browse. (There are two kinds of herbivores: Those who graze on grasses and those who browse on high-growing vegetation.) In Nebraska, tracking down suitable vegetation for browsing can be difficult, especially during the winter months.
“Trees take a long time to grow,” Kappen said, “and when you have six African elephants and 11 giraffes, not to mention all of our apes and other primates, they eat a lot of browse, so we need a lot of it. If we were to only harvest on grounds, we would quickly deforest the zoo.”
In response, the nutrition department has spurred the planting of additional trees and bamboo on the grounds. But for the winter months, they are researching freezing and silage options, based off research conducted and published by the Toronto Zoo. Toronto leaves the vegetation intact so it maintains its complexity, resulting in more foraging time and better mental and physical health in the animals. Elephants in the wild, for example, would spend most of the day searching for food, Kappen said, so when elephants do not get to spend enough time in zoos foraging, they get bored and start to exhibit negative mental and physical behavior.
“Our initial test runs have been promising,” she said about Omaha’s research, “and hopefully within the next four to six weeks here, we’ll know if the method that we were trying will work, and then we can do a little larger scale for this coming winter.”
It’s research like this that alters what other zoos do as well. Twenty years ago, zoo animals were routinely fed the same diet day after day. Now zoos rotate fruits and vegetables by season and alter meals day to day, which is better for animals’ mental health.
It’s also the research that drew Kappen to job to begin with. Kappen started her studies with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln intending to get a pre-veterinarian degree, but quickly switched to a fisheries & wildlife and music double major. During her junior year, she interned in the Henry Doorly Zoo nutrition program and discovered she loved the focus on research.
“I thought (the research) was really interesting and that it had a purpose,” she said. “They weren't just doing research for research sake; it was applied and problem-solving research, like: ‘This is a problem we have so we are investigating potential solutions’.”
During her internship, Dr. Cheryl Morris, director of Comparative Nutrition at the Omaha zoo, encouraged Kappen to pursue graduate school for animal nutrition. She did, earning her master’s degree from the University of Illinois. When she graduated, Kappen knew she wanted to work at the Omaha zoo, but she had to wait six to eight months for a job to open. When it did, she landed the job.
It is work she finds satisfying on a number of levels.
“One (satisfying aspect) is obviously just contributing to the mission of an organization like this,” she said. “We are striving to promote our four pillars: conservation, education, recreation, and research.”
Other perks include getting to see people of all ages, some for the first time, experiencing the animals they wouldn’t otherwise get to see.
The job comes with a few down sides, too. The smell of drying fish or feces for nutrient testing, for example, or when an animal dies. But they are aspects of the job Kappen accepts as part of the territory and as potential words of advice for current SNR students: Not every part of a job will be satisfying, but if one can handle the unsatisfactory parts to achieve others goals, then it might be worth it.
“Try things,” she said. “If I hadn't tried being a zoo keeper while an undergraduate, I might have gone all the way through my college thinking that was the only thing I wanted to do. Try shadowing experiences if you ever have the opportunity to see what a person does for a day.”
Recognize there are so many ways of working with animals in many different venues, she added. Find something that interests you, and then “get out there and do it.”
“I had no idea that this job even existed until I interned,” Kappen said, “and afterwards, I felt like this was the coolest job ever.”
In reality, it just might be.
Shawna Richter-Ryerson and Elyse Watson, Natural Resources