- Associated Press - Monday, April 16, 2018

DALLAS (AP) - When it comes to feeding and caring for a newborn, if a new mother can’t - or won’t - do it on her own, keepers at the Dallas Zoo are more than ready to step in and lend a hand.

In fact, as soon as zoo staff confirm that an animal is pregnant, they start planning to do so. Of course, the animal experts prefer to leave it all up to the parents, but occasionally it’s a necessity, they say.

The Dallas Morning News reports sometimes hand-rearing means preparing bottles and formula, and other times it means chopping up mice to feed to baby birds.

Before the animal is even born, Kerri Slifka, curator of nutrition, thumbs through her files to see if the zoo has a diet planned for that breed. If not, she’ll check with colleagues and research the best option.

Shelves are stocked at the zoo’s William M. Beecherl Animal Nutrition Center with all kinds of animal milk replacements, vitamins and electrolyte solutions.

“I’ll mix and match to get part of this one and part of this one,” Slifka said. “I don’t pay attention to who it says it’s for, I just pay attention to the nutrient content.”

The specialist says she’s paranoid and when an animal’s delivery is near, she carries around her food plan much the same way an expectant woman may cart around her hospital bag.

“If we’re going into the weekend and I know we might have a baby born, I make sure I’ve got that information with me because sometimes you have to do things on the fly,” she said.

To replicate the regurgitated slurry some birds feed their chicks, the zoo makes a shake with fish.

“Smells bad, works great,” Slifka said.

Other birds have different diet and are fed meals to match.

Dana Isaacs, a bird keeper who specializes in hand-rearing, cared for the chicks of a ground hornbill who couldn’t feed her young because of a beak injury.

Isaacs mixed up chopped pinky mice and a soft pellet feed for extra nutrition. The small mice were microwaved then dipped in Pedialyte for hydration before Isaacs fed them to the birds with little tongs.

At one point during hand-rearing, the chicks were on a strict schedule that meant feedings every two hours, seven times a day.

As the chicks grew, the parents were able to feed them without help from keepers, the zoo said.

Proper nutrition is only one concern Isaacs dealt with; she also had to ensure that the birds did not begin to mis-imprint or confuse their human caretakers for their parents. To avoid that, keepers sometimes feed them in silence and from behind a screen with a black glove, Isaacs said.

As with most animals on a special diet, how much food they get depends on how much they weigh.

When it comes to birds, keepers have to make sure the animals don’t gain more weight than their small legs can support.

But keepers aren’t always worried that their young animals will gain too much weight; they’re worried that they’re not gaining enough.

When staff determined Bahati, the zoo’s first lion cub in 43 years, wasn’t putting on the pounds as she should have been, she was put on Slifka’s special diet - the same meat fed to the older lions, but watered down with milk to get the correct fat and protein content.

She wasn’t on the new diet for long, but “it was a very stressful week,” Slifka said.

Bahati, who turned 1 last month, now weighs more than 160 pounds.

“I’m so proud of my baby,” Slifka said.

Not all new parents behave the same way, and the keepers have to be ready to respond.

Reptile parents don’t nurse and typically aren’t providing active care.

In those cases, keepers can provide mini versions of adult diets or smaller-sized adult foods. In some cases, young reptiles start eating more insects and switch to more adult diets.

Part of Slifka’s preparation for new arrivals is researching the mother’s milk, sometimes checking the Smithsonian’s milk depository to see how to match the protein, fat and water as closely as possible.

“We can’t replicate mom’s milk. It’s not just the nutrients in it; they’re also getting the normal bacteria,” Slifka said.

A couple of years ago, the zoo had to bottle-feed a dik-dik named Dasher when his mother did not provide the proper care. Keepers figured out how to comfort the animal during frequent feedings of evaporated goat’s milk, and soon he was weaned onto solid food and back with his mother.

“We really, really want to make sure they stay with mom,” Slifka said.

Staying with the mother means better nutrition as well as ensuring that the animal learns how to behave.

That’s another reason why the zoo is hopeful that Xena the tamandua can stay with her month-old lesser anteater baby.

At a recent well-baby check, Dr. Maren Connolly attempted to confirm the baby’s sex, drew blood and checked all the vital for the zoo’s second in the species.

Everything looked healthy for the baby boy, who doesn’t yet have a name, Connolly said.

She hopes the new tamandua won’t have any problems and can continue nursing from its mother until it is moved to a specially formulated pelleted feed.

It’s not all about the babies. Healthier moms often mean healthier offspring.

Pregnant and nursing animals are given a diet aimed at boosting calorie intake so they can put on the right amount of weight and get enough energy.

Thanks to a seven-year research project on a West Texas ranch, the zoo’s reptile department has learned its female Texas horned lizards weighed 30 to 35 grams when full of eggs, about half of their counterparts in the wild, said Jorge Chavez, a reptile and amphibian keeper.

The reptile team is now increasing the amount of ants they feed the pregnant females.

“We want to have really really fat females this year,” Chavez said. “If females are not in prime condition when they lay eggs, sometimes the baby will still hatch (but) - this is just a theory - we think the babies are not as strong.”


Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com

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