- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2008

CHICAGO (AP) — Gorillas on Weight Watchers? Polar bears slurping sugar-free Jell-O shots? Giraffes nibbling alfalfa biscuits?

The days of letting visitors throw marshmallows to the animals are mostly history at zoos across the country, replaced by a growing focus on diet and nutrition that parallels the fitness craze in humans.

And thanks to mounting research on wild animals’ food needs, today’s zoo staffers are trying new feeding tricks to keep their lions and tigers and bears healthy and happy.

Avoiding obesity is part of the program.

Like humans, many zoo animals “like the good stuff. They like the sugary, high-fat food, and they’re not moving as much as they’re genetically programmed to,” said Jennifer Watts, staff nutritionist at suburban Brookfield Zoo, west of Chicago.

Adding to the challenge is that food is used for training and to help keep animals psychologically stimulated. Too much “enrichment” can result in love handles, even on bears and gorillas.

So Miss Watts is hatching a Weight Watchers-style plan for the beasts. The idea is to assign points to food and allow the animals a limited number of extra points a week.

For example, molasses is a favorite treat of the bears and gorillas. Keepers often spread it around their enclosures to get them moving. Under the plan, two cups of molasses might be worth two points, and granola bars — a favorite bear treat — would be worth one.

“We’re trying to keep calorie intake within a limit. … We are very vigilant about monitoring the animals’ weight, because, like humans, it can lead to other health problems,” Miss Watts said.

Keepers at the Indianapolis Zoo are trying a different approach. Instead of fattening sweets, they offer sugar-free Jell-O to their polar bears, hiding the treats around the habitat.

“It tastes good but is calorie-free,” said zoo nutritionist Jason Williams.

Other tasty treats include low-salt crackers and specially prepared alfalfa biscuits offered to giraffes at some zoos, said veterinarian Chris Hanley from the Toledo Zoo. His zoo has an annual “Big Feed” day, when visitors can feed animals vegetables and other healthful snacks.

Many zoos help animals avoid couch potato-style eating by hiding bits of food around their enclosures to encourage food foraging similar to hunting in the wild.

At the Toledo Zoo, lions and tigers even get whole calf carcasses and wolves chow down on deer roadkill. The idea primarily is to provide a more natural, additive-free feeding method, but it does require a little more energy than slurping from a plate.

Some zoos have tried spreading the scent of prey around animals’ habitats to get them up and moving. At the St. Louis Zoo, that’s included dragging burlap bags filled with zebra feces around the lion habitat.

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