Give Now  »

Who sets the menu for the animals at the zoo?

Read Transcript
Hide Transcript


KAYTE YOUNG:  From WFRU in Bloomington, Indiana, I'm Kayte Young and this is Earth Eats.

BARBARA HENRY:  So, if you were a giraffe or an elephant, you would go along in your world, and you would consume things off of trees, and so we try to mimic, as best we can, what we call "browse", which is edible tree material.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This week on the show, Toby Foster talks with Barbara Henry at the Cincinnati Zoo. She's the one who figures out what each animal needs to eat, where to source their food and the best ways to feed the animals to ensure that they thrive. And Daniella Richardson talks with Denise Jamerson, founder of the Indiana Black Loam Conference, about obstacles and opportunities for black farmers in Indiana. Stay with us.

TOBY FOSTER:  That's Zoe, she's six. Tessa's 16.

TOBY FOSTER:  This is the sound of a giraffe eating romaine lettuce from my hand at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.

TOBY FOSTER:  I recently visited the zoo to chat with Barbara Henry, President of the Zoo and Wildlife Nutrition Foundation, and Curator of Nutrition at the Cincinnati Zoo, and Angela Hatke, the zoo's publicity manager.

TOBY FOSTER:  Tessa wants her food, so she'll just rip it out of your hand.

TOBY FOSTER:  A few years ago, I started following the Cincinnati Zoo on Instagram. Perhaps like some of you, I was drawn in by the story of Fiona the hippopotamus, who was born prematurely, too small to stand and nurse from her mom, and had to be cared for around-the-clock for months in order to get the chance to grow into the healthy hippo she is today.

TOBY FOSTER:  Barbara played a big part in Fiona's success, and was responsible for creating a sort of hippo baby formula to help Fiona survive those uncertain weeks and months. The team surrounding Fiona shared her progress on social media with Angela's help, and Fiona's story became known across the country. She continues to make frequent appearances on the zoo's social media, often eating some of her favorite snacks, such as water melon or squash.

TOBY FOSTER:  Since then, I've noticed that the Cincinnati Zoo shares pictures and videos of all types of animals doing all types of things, but very often they are eating. Rico the porcupine is another star. He enjoys a variety of crunchy foods, and his diet includes carrots, sweet potatoes, kale and celery, but corn on the cob seems to be his favorite.

TOBY FOSTER:  In addition to being fun to watch, the foods are often included in an animal's diet as a type of enrichment, or to stimulate certain behaviors or instincts, such as foraging, hunting or problem-solving. I recently got the chance to visit the zoo and chat with Barbara and Angela about what it's like to come up with a diet for such a wide variety of residents and how the zoo uses food, not only to keep the animals healthy and engaged, but also to connect with the public and spread information about their mission as a non-profit.

BARBARA HENRY:  My name is Barbara Henry. I'm the Curator of Nutrition, otherwise known as the Zoo Nutritionist. There are not very many zoo nutritionists on staff in zoos in North America.

BARBARA HENRY:  I was lucky enough to have a training program before I came here to go through and then be mentored and so, obviously, everybody has to feed their animals but not everybody has special training. A lot of it goes to the veterinarians to do, except they have very, very little training of nutrition because they're focusing on a lot of other things. And so, there are 21 zoos, by my definition, who have nutritionists on staff. That means you go and you do an undergraduate - mine was in Animal Science - and then you go and you get a graduate degree of some nutrition training that then you can apply to exotics.

BARBARA HENRY:  Some of my colleagues in the different zoos have just a masters degree like myself, or some have a PhD as well, so it just depends. Every zoo who has a nutritionist on staff, they may have a slightly different role. It has to be what their zoo needs for them.

BARBARA HENRY:  I began my nutrition training at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and after ten and a half years I was looking for a little bit of a change, and they had the position posted for Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. So, in July of 2005, they hired me to be their clinical nutritionist. What that means is they were wanting me to focus more on all the clinical side and less on, let's say, the research side but, because I've been here long enough, I have been able to show them that you can kind of blend those together.

BARBARA HENRY:  It's my responsibility to come in and manage the commissary operations, which is basically where the food goes through for the animals, and then to set up and make sure that all the animals of every species across the zoo have a diet. In 2018, we switched that emphasis a little, allowing me to do more nutrition emphasis and less management emphasis, even though I still have to work together. So, I work in conjunction with the keepers who take care of the animals, the curators who manage all the animal side of things, and the veterinarians, whose department I work in, to manage their health, because nutrition and health are very much together.

TOBY FOSTER:  So, when you're talking about originally it being more of the clinical side of things, are you talking about physically getting and storing and preparing the food?

BARBARA HENRY:  A little bit. The "clinical" means making sure that we have a maintenance diet, or an aging diet if an animal's aging, or a growing diet, and less on researching things that go along with keeping the animals in an exhibit for folks to learn about and come and visit at the zoo. Early on, I learned a sort of process to go through when you're thinking about bringing in an animal of whatever species, and so I follow those same seven-ish things that are considered in my thinking of what an animal diet would need to be. And then, you're right, I need to know what kind of foods are available, if there's an issue in the world with some food item. Are there changes? Are there better food items out there?

BARBARA HENRY:  In the course of my career I've been able to learn a little bit, collaborate with other folks around the different zoos, maybe sometimes in our area of the country or sometimes maybe there's only a few special businesses that would make the foods that we would need to feed the animal, so sort of kind of know what's going on. So, not only on-site like day to day, "Does Dilbert the six-banded armadillo need something special?" Or, "Gosh, is there a new product that might be better in Dilbert's diet?" It's a little bit of collaboration on a lot of different things.

TOBY FOSTER:  I asked Barbara about the research and planning that goes into coming up with a diet for an animal who may be less common or unfamiliar to the staff at the zoo.

BARBARA HENRY:  Okay, so typically when we're going to get an animal to our facility, or we're going to send an animal, we share what that animal has been consuming. So, if I'm going to get in Dilbert the six-banded armadillo, wherever he came from I'm going to ask them what they are doing. Then, subsequently, if I'm going to send Dilbert somewhere, I'm going to send that information out. However, in the bigger picture, say you're going to receive a species that maybe you've never worked with before and you might think, "Gosh, that's not very common," but it can be.

BARBARA HENRY:  For instance, we brought in to have in our night hunters building a ringtail, not a ringtail lemur, but a ringtail, which is a carnivore, and you almost want to say it's maybe a ringtail cat. So, while we may have had one way, way before, because our zoo is very old, I had not ever worked with that species, so I wanted to do a little bit of research on what kind of animal it is. So yes, getting the information on what that animal was consuming where it was coming from was very important.

BARBARA HENRY:  From the bigger picture, the way that I go about looking at a diet is I look at the species, and the first thing I want to know is what would that species consume if it weren't in human care? And I ask what's the foraging ecology of that animal, and usually I'm doing some sort of research on my computer. Also, we know that domestic animals have been studied really closely and so, typically, what we're doing is if we can find published articles on what the animal's foraging ecology was, or foraging diet was, we can put that together with some of the animals that would be as closely related on the domestic side to the exotic side, and we can come up with a target range of nutrients. So, everything from protein and fat, to maybe calcium and phosphorus to maybe iron or what kind of fibers does it need, depending upon what kind of species it is.

BARBARA HENRY:  We also look at how does it need to consume its diet? So, I like to know everything that's going in the mouth and then coming out the other end, because you want to make sure that the animal is digesting their food, whatever food you're giving them, properly. Then, in that process, you look at whether the animal is going to be in a group. So, what's the group dynamics? Are there special needs? Do I need to have certain foods in there for training, or shifting the animals, or just to mix up the diet? What other nutrients are coming from the different food items that then I can put together?

BARBARA HENRY:  We also have to ask if that animal is just maintaining, is it in its adult life? Is it growing? Does it have special needs there? Is it aging? Is there a disease? Because we may need to have certain food items in there to help with nutrient absorption and so the other thing is, is the animal healthy or is the animal sick? So, you can see there's sort of these bullet points that I follow in order to put together a diet. It might seem like it's complex, but as you're doing it over the years, it becomes sort of a process that you go through, and so it's just a natural thing for me to think of.

BARBARA HENRY:  Once the animal comes, then you have to make sure the animal's consuming the diet, and so that will go along with as the keepers are feeding it, how is it looking? Is it leaving too much food or is it not enough? And then, when the animal has a physical with the veterinarians, then they assess. Usually they take blood and they look at the blood primers, you know, the nutrients there and the different things, and also the weight and so maybe they look at the teeth. You and I might go and see the dentist, well, it's the same type of thing for the animals here that we take care of.

TOBY FOSTER:  Of course, I wanted to know what the ringtail eats.

BARBARA HENRY:  It is a carnivore and so there are certain companies that make what I would consider to be an analogy for humans, a meatloaf. We cook it, of course, but we mix meat and we maybe mix vegetables, and we mix egg and then we maybe do a sauce, and then we stick it in the oven and we have meatloaf, and some people love meatloaf. Well, for animals, we feed them raw things, right, but there are a couple of companies out there that follow some really good standards, and they put everything together. We call it a meat mix, and so it's beef ground up with vitamins and minerals and fiber. That is pretty common in most every carnivore diet but not sole food item that they would consume.

BARBARA HENRY:  We would find some prey items that they would also eat in their diet, so we would get in some frozen different prey items, say maybe a chick or a mouse, and then that would be in their diet as well.

TOBY FOSTER:  Barbara emailed me the specifics the next day. In addition to beef, mice and chicks, the ringtail's diet also includes quite a bit of fruit, 34.09% to be exact, as well as steamed eggs, mealworms and crickets.

BARBARA HENRY:  The good thing about exotic animals is we don't know the exacts, but that's also a challenge, because in some domestics and/or even in humans, because you can blend in human nutrition for some of the primates. We have animals in our care for a very long time, so they maybe wouldn't age as long, perhaps, in the wild, because they have excellent care. So, we sort of pull everything from domestic animals and humans and we put targets together. Then yes, I say, "These are kind of where we stand, what does our diet look like?" Say, maybe our target for a domestic animal maybe the fat isn't always very high, but if we know our animal is maintaining a good body condition, then we're fine with that. So it's a guide, but maybe it's not an absolute.

TOBY FOSTER:  Okay, that makes sense. So you kind of adjust based on how they're actually doing as well as what's theoretically the best item.

BARBARA HENRY:  Correct. And the body condition, we also have been working together amongst many facilities to come up with body condition scores. So, if you have maybe a cat or a dog at home and you go to the veterinarian, they're going to talk to you about the foods that you feed and the body condition of your pet. We do that same thing. We have different body condition score charts, and somebody in another facility may have worked really hard on a cheetah body condition score, or a lion, and so then they're going to share that information. What they usually do is put together a chart, and they say, "Here's what you're looking for." So they look at different parts of the body. They usually look over the shoulders of an animal, on the hips, along the spine and sort of along the torso, and we like to watch animals walk and see the body condition or maybe in a stationary space.

BARBARA HENRY:  The other thing is we try to weigh our animals a lot, so we can use both of those tools together to say do we feel like the animals in really good condition. Because they're only going to have physicals every so often, and so that's the third component, is during their physical, if they're anesthetized because they're doing different things with the animal, they can also get their hands on the animal and then we can use that as the third tool.

TOBY FOSTER:  Since a lot of the animals at the zoo come from very different parts of the world, I asked Barbara if she has any particular challenges getting the foods that she would ideally like to feed the animals in her care.

BARBARA HENRY:  As the years go on, we see less available seafood for some of our animals. So, in years past you might have been able to have a little bit more variety for, maybe, the penguins, and so sometimes you see a decline. If you can grow your food, you might have a better time to be able to tailor it more to the animal. Some things we don't have the ability to do that. While sometimes folks are looking at growing fish in aquaculture type of situations, for the amount of species and quantity of animals that we have, we are still collecting fish from the ocean.

BARBARA HENRY:  One thing that we have done, let's say in the last ten years, is we have emphasized, all across AZA institutions, a higher amount of edible tree material in the diet. So, if you were a giraffe or an elephant you would go along in your world and you would consume things off of trees, and so we try to mimic, as best we can, with species that are edible - because sometimes they're not edible, and you need to be very cautious about that - what we call "browse" which is edible tree material. So we have put a bigger focus on how can we provide this so that the animal has the best animal care? We have other food items in their diet, but if we can combine more and provide different types of materials, it's going to be better for the animal.

TOBY FOSTER:  A quick note that AZA refers to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It's a non-profit that evaluates zoos and aquariums based on animal welfare, care and management. So, when Barbara refers to accredited zoos, this is what she's talking about. One thing that surprised me is how much of Barbara's job comes down to the logistics of getting the amount and types of food that the zoo requires. She told me that, during the pandemic, it became very difficult to find beef blood for the vampire bats, which was a big problem since it's the only thing they eat.

BARBARA HENRY:  When you look at the vampire bat, it's one item, and if you don't have blood we can't feed them. You have to have a plan, and then a backup plan, and then another backup plan. That was probably the first time ever that we were, like, "Let's plan a little bit further out," because we had never really experienced that, and folks changed operationally locally, and so then we just looked for sources that were more distant away. They do exist, we just were really lucky to be able to get our food source for the bats locally. And we try to do that. We emphasize local.

BARBARA HENRY:  Sometimes we have been able to establish growing our own food, and we will continue to do that, to be able to have our eyes and ears on the foods. You have to look at that critically. It's not just making the diet, right? I can tell you that I want to feed this to the ringtail or this expanded armadillo or the gorilla, but it's then being able to get those foods and see where those foods came from and looking at the vendors that we're purchasing those foods from. We have put in a really big effort, and we will continue to do that across the zoo for growing our own food.

BARBARA HENRY:  It will be interesting because some foods are a little harder to grow locally, as I just told you that we get things from the ocean, and/or it may be a special meat that's mixed and a company who have several lines of meat, but that's their whole process, that's what their company is built to do. So, sometimes it's a little harder for us to do that, but I'm okay with thinking outside the box and talking about how we can build it in and bring new things in every year.

TOBY FOSTER:  Why can't a vampire bat have blood from a different animal?

BARBARA HENRY:  Well, they can, I'm not saying that you couldn't. When I worked at Brookfield, we were going to open a vampire bat exhibit. We hadn't had one. We'd had other species of bats, just not the vampire bat. We were looking to obtain some bats from a university that were going to not be doing some research that they were doing, and they lived in a symbiotic relationship with chickens in their exhibit, therefore they would consume chicken blood. In the wild, if you have a vampire bat it can live symbiotically with other animals. It doesn't bite into the animal and suck all of its blood out, despite the movies, that's not what they do. They would only take a little bit and then move on. So, we could get other blood, but that isn't commercially available.

BARBARA HENRY:  That's the thing. When we're looking at foods for our animals in our care, we are looking at commercially available things because we want it to be the best quality and safe, and so sometimes we cross into feeding the same thing as we would consume as humans, and sometimes we would only obtain those because they were made for the industry that we work in. So, sometimes, it's just knowing what the products are and why they're there and then asking the right questions to those vendors, forming relationships with those vendors and then sharing information among institutions.

TOBY FOSTER:  Collaboration with other zoos is one of the things that is most important to Barbara, and seems to be one of the central tenets of her approach to nutrition. One way she does this is by serving on the Nutrition Advisory Group for the AZA.

BARBARA HENRY:  We, as a group, get together and share information, and so I've been a part of that steering committee for a very long time. I've been able to share information or work collaboratively with others to create documents that are useful information and nutrition, and then also serve on, say, as an adviser for the otter species plan, or the colobus species plan. I have a whole list of things that I have worked with over the years. Sometimes I've been asked to teach the nutrition component of a workshop, or write some document on nutrition that would then help whomever in whatever facility would want to learn more about it.

BARBARA HENRY:  The other thing AZA was putting together were manuals, where they would have a chapter on nutrition and a chapter on reproduction, and a chapter on medical, or a chapter on just basic husbandry, and then everybody works together to put those so that they're usable information and then anybody who would be like, "Gosh, I really want to know more about the colobus species," and so they could and read this 100-page document which has six or seven pages on nutrition, and so I work with others to do that as well.

TOBY FOSTER:  At this point, I feel like I should say that I understand that not everyone likes zoos. The idea of keeping an animal in a cage is not one that I necessarily love myself and, to be clear, there are many "zoos" that are built for profit and entertainment and do not have the means to, or maybe even the intention of, taking care of their animals. I also believe, however, that a reputable zoo puts an emphasis on education and conservation and it's zoos like that, actually the Brookfield Zoo specifically, that gave me such a love for animals at a young age. I've also been a vegetarian for over a decade, and I still love visiting the Cincinnati Zoo. I hope that it's clear by now that Barbara and the staff that she works with put a great deal of effort into taking the best possible care of the animals there.

TOBY FOSTER:  I wanted to talk to Barbara a bit more about the conservation and research efforts that are a part of the zoo's mission. That includes efforts to source the food for her animals locally whenever possible, and working with the AZA Advisory Group to find ways to more humanely and sustainably source their feeder animals. She is also the President of another non-profit, the Zoo and Wildlife Nutrition Foundation, whose mission is to provide nutrition, education and advice, and to contribute to global and regional nutritional research programs.

BARBARA HENRY:  So, you can do conservation more locally or you can do conservation globally and so, obviously, Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden does both. Along the way the person who was my mentor and my boss for a very long time, we lost her to cancer, and so, upon her passing, we put together a training program where we asked for donations and then a zoo has to apply to a grant. So say I was the person who wanted to apply to this grant, I would have to say, "Okay, I'm going to commit to training this person, I'm gonna follow these guidelines that were set up in her memory by the nutrition group," and then it can be awarded based on whoever else applies, and then I would commit to hiring and training for a future zoo nutritionist. That was very important to our mentor and my former boss. So it's been important to us as a nutrition group to be able to educate and get other facilities to agree that nutrition at their zoo is important, so basically training the future.

BARBARA HENRY:  Our mission is nutrition research, a small grant for that, a small grant for travel for somebody in nutrition to go to a meeting, and then that grant for training, and it's a two-year program, whereas the other ones are either yearly a small amount or every other year. So it's been a cool opportunity to be able to further nutrition, whether it's research, conservation. We've been ten years in, and we've a lot that we've been able to celebrate, but we still will be out there asking, you know, and figuring out donations so that we can keep everything going. That is a conservation effort that we totally believe in. We would love to be able to have research grant money, to be able to award those to people who apply, so that if they're trying to answer a small question or a big question that they would have the money to do those projects.

TOBY FOSTER:  One of the things I was curious to talk to Barbara about is the idea of using certain foods to stimulate certain behaviors and instincts in the animals. Carcass feeding is one of the examples she mentioned already.

BARBARA HENRY:  In general, any diet, you would like to have that animal show natural behavior, and carcass feeding is just one of those things that, for a carnivore, would be able to do that. So, in the wild, they wouldn't get that meat mix, would they? They would be out hunting for their prey, and then they would, sometimes in collaboration depending upon the species, have the ability to take down the prey and then consume the prey. Over time, we want to look at all the behaviors that we're trying to have our animals show, and that was one of them.

TOBY FOSTER:  Again, this became a bit of a logistical challenge, since most facilities are typically processing animals for human consumption, and Barbara wanted the hide and hooves left on.

BARBARA HENRY:  How do we do that and with the vendors that we have locally, so that we can utilize product that isn't necessarily going to be consumed for humans. So, right now, we do feed goats as a carcass, and we are exploring if we can do deer in the future. We would do some testing to make sure the deer was meeting the nutrition and health needs, so I've worked in collaboration with the veterinarians. But there are facilities out there who do have that, or maybe have access to different types of carcass. Sometimes they might feed something whole-ish, but don't have the hide or the hooves on, and so it just depends on where they're located in the country.

TOBY FOSTER:  So is that something that's relatively new?

BARBARA HENRY:  I think the bigger ones, when I talk about frozen, thawed prey, that to me is carcass because it could be a mouse, it could be a rat, it could be a guinea pig, it could be a quail, it could be a chick. But bigger carcass pieces, so say the pack of African painted dogs, well, a rabbit's not going to work, because there's too many of them, so you did need a bigger thing. So, it was more complicated to find a bigger carcass from that perspective, but we've been feeding the smaller, what I would categorize as carcass as well. Does that make sense?

TOBY FOSTER:  Yeah, that makes sense. So it's kind of just newer to do the larger animals.

BARBARA HENRY:  Correct. And some facilities have had relationships with vendors where it is even bigger than a goat, and so it just depends on the relationships, it depends on the protocols that they have in place at their facilities as to what their philosophy is.

TOBY FOSTER:  I wanted to know some other ways that foods are used to stimulate behaviors. I had read some articles about food being used to convince a certain animal to take its medication, for example or, in the case of the Komodo dragon, keepers recently started burying some of its food to encourage it to explore its habitat in a new way.

BARBARA HENRY:  My philosophy is the diet can be used in so many different ways. I don't care for the philosophy where, you know, this is the base diet and then this is the enrichment part of the diet and this is the behavior part of the diet or I need this for medicine. I want to be able to look at the whole diet holistically, and then discuss ways in which we can use those food items, whatever is needed, to elicit the natural behavior, or to make sure that this animal gets medicated, or to make sure that this animal shifts from one place to the other, and so, I just try to work collaboratively with the keepers in order to do that.

BARBARA HENRY:  One of the more recent things with the Komodo would be to offer that larger piece of a goat and put it into the exhibit in a way that the Komodo would have to work to get it, or we did the same thing with, say, the alligator or the crocodile. And so, they would, perhaps, in their natural state, they would be going along and hunting for something bigger, so it was just providing it in a safe way and diversifying what you're providing. If they were burying whatever it was that we were feeding Hudo - that's the name of the Komodo - today, maybe they were trying to get him to elicit the behavior that he would if he were going to dig it up and consume it.

BARBARA HENRY:  Say we want to change something, even if we've been feeding this same thing forever and ever and a day, I am open to having the conversation to be like, "Well, hey, I'm looking for something different, what do you think about these items versus the items we're feeding," or, "Can we seasonally change a diet to show different things?" Because, maybe they would feed higher in one part of the year and lower in the other. You know, some bears hibernate, so in order to get to the hibernation state, that bear beforehand for months is going to feed a lot higher calorically, and then for the time of hibernation would consume almost nothing and sometimes nothing. In human care, we can't feed them nothing, but we can try to put together a plan to follow a natural feeding behavior, and that may change.

BARBARA HENRY:  I've had lots of conversations where they were, "Maybe we feed this snake more food in these months, and less food in these other months, because we're trying to shift the way the animal would consume calories and/or changes in their body mass. That's true for some species of birds, it's sort of like they're less hungry or more hungry and so, as long as we're keeping an eye on their weight and their body condition, we can follow those patterns; that's not a problem.

TOBY FOSTER:  As I mentioned earlier, the Cincinnati Zoo became very well known after their work raising Fiona the hippopotamus, who was born prematurely in 2017. Barbara played a big part in Fiona's success story, and I knew I had to ask her at least a little bit about it, even though I feared she might be a little sick of talking about it. It also leads into the last part of our conversation, where we're joined by Head of Public Relations, Angela Hatke, to talk about the impact that social media and specifically the animals eating their food on social media, has had at the zoo.

BARBARA HENRY:  It's funny, because she is very popular. We do like that. We love people to come and see Fiona. She was born prematurely as best we can estimate, and needed to be reared by us. Therefore, we needed to come up with a formula. We were putting together the best information we could from what we could find in the literature that said this is what are the components of mom's milk, nutritionally, and then with the products that we had.

BARBARA HENRY:  Our colleagues at Smithsonian's National Zoo have a laboratory where over years and years and years they have focused on the nutritional analysis of milk of different species, and so we collaborated with them in order to analyze a little bit of milk that we could get from mom, because she was trained to come in to the scale and they would do an ultrasound with mom. So, she was already sort of set up to be able to then collect some milk. There is less information known about, in general, across every species the nutritional components of the milk, and then the changes in the milk over time. And so, what those few samples helped us to do was look nutritionally at it, make some adjustments and then test them out with her and then being able to, every day if we needed to, tweak that information for her milk in order to get her to consume it, digest it, absorb it and grow. So, it took lot of people as a collaboration to do that, and I was just lucky enough to be the person crunching the numbers!

BARBARA HENRY:  Then we felt it necessary to publish that information, so we did do that as well. Because sometimes people call us, or we'll call somebody else and say, "Hey, we're expecting an armadillo, or we're expecting a tamandua," back before we had our first tamandua in many years, and if somebody else has successfully hand reared those, they share the information, we share the information out, and so we want to collaborate. Why would you reinvent the wheel when you don't have to? It is way better to share that information and that knowledge and then take the best care you can.

ANGELA HATKE:  I'm Angela Hatke, and I do marketing and PR at the Cincinnati Zoo.

ANGELA HATKE:  With Fiona, we were really telling her story every day. So, every day in the beginning was a milestone moment, like she made it through the night, she took her first bottle, she took her first steps. Part of that really was sharing how much she was drinking, and there's one photo we have of all the bottles lined up,because she finally was drinking enough. Then, yes, we just kind of kept sharing every single moment, and the keepers were really good about helping to share that info too, so, everything from giving her lettuce - that's her favorite.

ANGELA HATKE:  We've done taste tests to see which food she likes the best, and it is always romaine lettuce or watermelon. Any of those national days, like National Watermelon Day or Halloween, we really like to give her fun foods that, of course, we ask Barbara to make sure. We've had requests, like, "It's pancake day, can Fiona get a pancake?" And she was, like, "No!" So, you keep her safe from all our crazy ideas.

BARBARA HENRY:  Correct. Sometimes we might go out of our way to make a healthy pancake if we have a collaboration with a local place. And so, you know, we are a non-profit, so while we utilize, obviously, the money where people come in and pay as a guest, we also have to take the best care of our animals, and so we do it with sponsorships. So, sometimes, we are asked by a sponsor to do certain things, and we try to accommodate, as best we can, within the limit, so that we're not giving, you know, processed items or a lot of sugar. So, we have gone out of our way to whatever species - hippos is a big one. When I first came here, we didn't have hippos. Then, every time you would ask the public what's one species that we don't have that you really want? Hippos came up a lot. So, obviously, we put hippos into the Africa exhibit building module, and they are hugely, hugely popular. Ours just happen to be cute and nationally known.

ANGELA HATKE:  So we do, like, a birthday party every year for Fiona or other animals too, and Barbara helps a lot with that, just kind of how can we make this fun but still healthy and appropriate for the animal we're celebrating? So, that's kind of fun.


ANGELA HATKE:  Another huge star is Rico, our porcupine, and he eats corn and celery and peanut butter and everything crunchy, and it seems to be a huge hit with his followers, so that's really fun. When the keepers just have sent a video and his big nose, and I didn't know he was a rodent until we started showing these and you can really see his teeth look like rodent teeth. So, it's really cool to see him close up, and the crunching, I mean, people always comment. Like, I can't stand hearing people eat, but Rico eating is, like, the best thing ever! So, the keepers have really great videos and help us really share the animals' stories.

TOBY FOSTER:  So, will you get, like, a text message from a keeper asking if they can give an ear of corn?

BARBARA HENRY:  Typically they use the diet items. They have special foods in the diet for training or that really is an enriching thing. So, one of Rico's really favorite things is a dried banana chip. Well, that's just part of his diet. We try to build into every diet for every animal species things that maybe they aren't given all the time, but maybe they're rotated, and then those are popular things. The keepers are the ones really who are doing the video, and wanting to highlight whether it's a Galapagos tortoise, or Hudo the Komodo, or it's different snakes when they're out and exercising or when they're being fed.

BARBARA HENRY:  Rico the porcupine has followers on social media. So, if he's taken off exhibit to change around his exhibit or repurpose his exhibit, they have to post on social media that he's not going to be available, because if they don't some of his followers are very upset when they come to the zoo and they don't see him. I just try to meet the needs of everything. Sometimes it's you're only giving an animal something special once in a while, whether it's National Watermelon Day or Easter's coming up, so you will see a lot of animals offered steamed eggs that are colored by our wonderful volunteer crew, because it's Easter.

BARBARA HENRY:  And so, during Halloween we give a lot of different pumpkins in a lot of different ways. It just depends on what it is. We do try to meet the needs, and we all deserve to have special things every once in a while, so long as overall we eat a good diet.

TOBY FOSTER:  My guests were Barbara Henry and Angela Hatke from the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. To see some pictures of my visit and for links to more information, visit

KAYTE YOUNG:  This is Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young. Next up, producer Daniella Richardson has a story about her visit to the Indiana Black Loam Conference in Bloomington, Indiana.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  24% of black Americans experienced food insecurity in 2020, a number more than triple the rate of white Americans. In response, some have turned to agriculture to produce their own food, however in the US the life of a black farmer is not an easy one, and there are few spaces in which they are allowed to exist without issue.

DENISE JAMERSON:  To me, it was the defining moment of seeing the black farmers decline around me. It's almost like they were becoming extinct.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  The second annual Bloomington Black Loam Conference took place downtown in March of 2023. The Black Loam Conference is an annual event sponsored by Legacy Taste of the Garden, and the People's Cooperative Market. The conference provides resources and opportunities for networking with black indigenous people of color and socially disadvantaged rural, urban and community farmers. It was created in response to declining black farmers and the ever-present racial inequity within the agricultural community.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  The event was imagined two years ago by Legacy Taste of the Garden, a farming operation in Princeton, Indiana. Legacy Taste of the Garden was founded by the Greer family, a multi-generational family of farmers, dating back to the pre-Civil War era. Their lands are based in Lyles Station. Denise Jamerson, Legacy's Farming Operations Manager, sat down to talk with me at the event. She shared some of her family's history and their reasons for forming the Black Loam Conference.

DENISE JAMERSON:  I am a fifth generation farmer from Lyles Station, Indiana, which is the last remaining African American settlement in Indiana. My father is a part of the Smithsonian National African American Museum as one of the last remaining African American farmers still farming land that's been in our family since pre-Civil War. So, I grew up on a farm, been on a farm and my son decided that he wanted to continue on the legacy, hence our company is called Legacy Taste of the Garden, and we do farming and produce.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Denise and her family wanted to start the Black Loam Conference when they noticed that many of the issues her father faced as a black farmer six decades ago, were the same issues her son faced as a black farmer today.

DENISE JAMERSON:  My son decided he wanted to go into farming and so, whenever he decided to do that and we started working into the farming arena, it became very apparent to me that the same thing that my dad was dealing with as far as discrimination for black farmers was the exact same thing my son was facing as wanting to go into farming. So, with that, we've been trying to make things better.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  And she soon learned that they were not the only ones taking notice of these issues.

DENISE JAMERSON:  And in the same time USDA, because of their history of discrimination, has been wanting to amend and create bridges to bring black farmers back, to help black farmers and do what they can do to start getting them more aware of the programs, getting them more involved in the programs, trying to connect with the black farmers. So, with that being said, we bring in my husband. He's been a part of the community, you know, he's knowing the people, seeing the people, knowing the farming and stuff like that. Someone had reached out to him. We had a black person come in and start working into one of our local USDA offices, and from that he connected him with another person with CCSI, which is cropping services, and they asked, "Can you do a conference with black farmers?" And he's like, "Well, yeah."

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  The formation of this conference has also served as their way to combat food access disparity in neighboring cities and connect with other black farmers that many believed to be gone.

DENISE JAMERSON:  Being in the community where they grow produce, you can't sell a whole lot. So we were, like, "Let's just go to Indianapolis, to the people we used to know," as a way for him to be able to be able to distribute his produce, only to find out about the food deserts and the socially disadvantaged. And we hooked up with the people who are black growers, black farmers that were in Indianapolis, which has grown the other cities and stuff like that. So, therefore, we knew that there were other black farmers that are out there, that they're saying aren't there. So, last year was the first year of the Black Loam, and to me it was kind of like a bring them out. It was bring them out. You say they ain't here? Let's bring them out!

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Denise realized just how important it was to go through with their efforts after speaking with children in her community and teaching them about agriculture.

DENISE JAMERSON:  The wake-up moment is when I'm dealing with kids that have probably never even dug in dirt, so it's like, "Wait a minute, you don't even know where your food comes from?" You know, along with seeing the food deserts, then that trickles to what are they eating? Because, for me and my generation and even my kids, everybody talks about going home, or going to the country and getting that good food from the country. Well, we've got a gap going on, to where these kids have not experienced that.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  The Black Loam Conference also takes place in Evansville, Gary, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis. This allows farmers to hear the different stories from different communities and come together locally to share resources and ideas.

DENISE JAMERSON:  The whole purpose with the different locations also is that you have different types of farmers and different types of scenarios in different communities, so what goes on in my community is a little bit different than what goes on here in Bloomington's community, and totally different in Indianapolis in the urban community and Fort Wayne. So it's all different, so each conference is kind of tailored to that community and that community's needs so, therefore, the conference is automatically different.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  The conference has so far succeeded in making an impact among farmers of color. Farmer [PHONETIC: Jenny Cho] believes that the Black Loam Conference is a point of unity.

JENNY CHO:  I think it's speaking to a greater movement of not only, like, empowering under-served groups, but really kind of bringing people back to their own sovereignty as human beings, to really kind of reclaim our divine rights to natural resources, to food and water, to not have a middle man or a government dictating what you can and cannot eat and when you want to. I feel like our society has kind of shifted in such a way where farming is almost looked down upon as, like, a very menial thing to do, but I view it as the exact opposite. I think being able to cultivate the land that you're on and have a relationship with it is the highest calling as human beings.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Most importantly, the conference is highlighting black farmers and acknowledging their existence and contribution to their communities as well as their struggle.

DENISE JAMERSON:  Find out about black farmers! Black farmers are suffering. You hear about black farmers, but you don't really know what issues are going on with black farmers and the USDA. There was a reason that there was a lawsuit with the USDA; there's a reason that the USDA want to try to amends with the black farmers; there's a reason that my son is still dealing with the things that my father did 60 years ago, and being able to be a farmer. So, look up, talk to the black farmers. Find a legacy black farmer, somebody that's been farming as a profession and ask them, and find out a way to support them, because farming is very, very important to us, our culture and our history.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  For Earth Eats, I'm Daniella Richardson.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Earth Eats producer Daniella Richardson was speaking with Denise Jamerson and Jenny Cho at the Indiana Black Loam Conference, organized and sponsored by Legacy Taste of the Garden in Lyles Station, Indiana, and People's Cooperative Market in Bloomington, Indiana. Find out more at

KAYTE YOUNG:  The Earth Eats team includes Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Abraham Hill, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Schemenauer, Payton Whaley and Harvest Public Media. Special thanks this week to Barbara Henry, Angela Hatke, Peter Woods, Jenny Cho, Denise Jamerson and everyone at People's Cooperative Market. The show was produced and edited by me, Kayte Young. Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from Universal Production Music and, this week, from Peter Woods. Our Executive Producer is John Bailey.

A red panda outdoors looking at the camera while Barbara Henry offers it a piece of fruit.

Barbara Henry is the Curator of Nutrition at the Cincinnati Zoo (courtesy of Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden )

“So if you were a giraffe or an elephant you would go along in your world and you would consume things off of trees. And so we try to mimic, as best we can, what we call browse, which is edible tree material.”

This week on the show, Toby Foster talks with Barbara Henry at the Cincinnati Zoo. She’s the one who figures out what each of the animals need to eat, where to source their food and the best ways to feed the animals to ensure that they thrive. 

And, Daniella Richardson talks with Denise Jamerson, founder of the Indiana Black Loam conference, about obstacles and opportunities for Black farmers in Indiana. 

giraffe poking its face over a chain linked fence, eating a piece of lettuce, toby foster holds a mic on the edge of the frame
(photo credit: Ryan Woods)

A few years ago, I started following the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden on Instagram. Like some of you, I was drawn in by the story of Fiona the hippopotamus. She was born prematurely, too small to stand and nurse from her mom, Bibi, and had to be cared for around the clock for months to get the chance to grow into the healthy hippo she is today. 

The zoo shared her story in real time on social media, and since then I have noticed that they share lots of photos of animals doing all types of things, but very often they are eating. I got the chance to visit the zoo recently to talk to Barbara Henry, the zoo’s curator of nutrition, and Angela Hatke, the zoo’s publicity manager. 

Barbara played a big part in Fiona’s success story back in 2017. There are only 21 facilities in the country that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and have a full-time nutritionist on staff, and Barbara, along with the help of some colleagues at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, was able to use her training to create a sort of hippo baby formula, which had to be constantly adjusted to mimic the milk that Fiona would have gotten from her mother. 

The zoo has plenty of other residents as well, from Rico the porcupine and Hudo the Komodo dragon to penguins, snakes, and a wide variety of insects. Barbara must come up with a diet for them all. Then she has to figure out where to source all that food, as it all must meet the same standards that food for humans would in terms of quality. This is not always easy, as was evidenced during the pandemic when it became difficult to find beef blood, which is the only thing the vampire bats eat. “If you don’t have blood,” Barbara told me, “We can’t feed them. So you have to have a plan, and then a backup plan, and then another backup plan.” 

Barbara is also the president of the Zoo and Wildlife Nutrition Foundation, whose mission is to provide nutrition education and advice and to contribute to global and regional nutrition research programs. Research and collaboration with other veterinarians and nutritionists is something that is very important to Barbara, and integral to her approach to nutrition. 

Overall, Barbara says, “The diet can be used in so many different ways.” In addition to being nutritious, diet can encourage a certain behavior in an animal, such as foraging or exploring its habitat. It can also be used to mimic the natural cycle of an animal that usually hibernates during certain seasons. The diet can also be used as enrichment, training, or as a special treat, and these are often the moments that Angela shares with the zoo’s social media followers. In that way, too, food is used to connect with the public in a fun way that can also be educational and help share the zoo’s mission as a non-profit. 

As someone who has been a vegetarian for over a decade, I realize that not everyone likes zoos. The concept of keeping an animal in a cage is not one that I necessarily love myself, and there are certainly many for-profit “zoos” which lack the means to, or maybe even intention of, taking care of their animals. I also believe, that a reputable, accredited zoo, such as the Cincinnati Zoo, places an emphasis on conservation and education, as well as the welfare of their animals, and it is zoos like that that gave me such a love for animals at an early age. Visiting Barbara and Angela at work reaffirmed my belief in this, as they are both clearly passionate about taking the best possible care of the zoo’s residents, and I thank them for that and for spending time with me.  

And I got to feed a giraffe, which was pretty exciting! 

Music on this Episode:

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from Peter Woods and  Universal Production Music.



Stories On This Episode

The Black Loam Conference Opens Doors for BIPOC Farmers and Demands Change

Black Loam Conference convention room with guests listening to a panel of farmers.

Legacy Taste of the Garden and the People’s Cooperative Market hosted their second annual Bloomington Black Loam Conference. Many farmers came together to share information, resources, and their stories.

Support For Indiana Public Media Comes From

About Earth Eats

Harvest Public Media