COOKING FOR CRITTERS
WOULD a monkey eat a mango? Would a hippo eat a tomato?
But if you really want to know, ask Louis Barroso.
Mr. Barroso commands the kitchen at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay Zoo in
Tampa Bay, Fla. As an animal dietician, he is in charge of preparing the food for all the animals in the zoo - more than 3,000 of them!
I wanted to learn more about what this zoo chef does, so I called him up on the phone.
At the time, he was making a meal for some armadillos. ``What do you feed armadillos?'' I asked him.
``Armadillo food, of course,'' he answered, then laughed.
Armadillos eat a mixture of a lot of things, he explained, such as canned dog food, dry dog food, hard-boiled eggs, bananas, chopped greens, and maybe some worms, such as mealworms, grubs, or earthworms.
That may sound gross, especially the worms, but Barroso and his kitchen staff try to feed the animals the kind of food they would get in their natural habitat.
``We always try to get as close to nature's food as we can,'' he says.
There are 3,400 animals at this zoo, to be exact - mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. And they all get their meals delivered from Barroso's kitchen - whether the food is hay and grain for the zebras, five pounds of meat for the lions, or mixed fruit for the baboons.
How does he know what the animals like to eat? ``Usually when we get the animals, they come with a diet,'' he says. If they don't come with ``directions,'' Barroso works with animal experts to design a meal plan. Sometimes he calls other zoos to get some advice. ``I get to talk to people all over the world.'' He called a zoo in South America, for example, to get some suggestions on what to feed fruit bats. (As it turns out, they like their papayas perfectly ripe.)
The kitchen staff works to make the food not only tasty, but also good for the animals. Then, the staff tries to keep it consistent, or basically the same, so the animals know what to expect. They don't like surprises in their food, Barroso says. This is why you might see signs at various places saying: ``Please don't feed the animals.''
Barroso remembers a funny story. One time, a woman donated her pet spider monkey to the zoo. ``We tried to slowly introduce her to the rest of the group and convert over her diet, but we had a real tough time. After two weeks, she had hardly eaten anything. We had to call her old owner up.'' They learned that the woman used to feed her monkey things such as lobster, spaghetti, and other food that humans would eat. The monkey got so used to that kind of food, she didn't like anything the zoo fed her. The woman ended up taking her monkey back.
BARROSO has been in charge of the kitchen at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay Zoo for 25 years. He says that when he was growing up, he always liked animals, ``but most of the time it was dogs or cats.''
``It changed after I got here, through time. I started [as] a `relief' [filling in for someone], and as I got more and more interested in it, it turned into a full-time job.... I still enjoy it. It's a lot of fun.'' He says he doesn't have any favorite animals at the zoo. ``I like feeding all of them.''
Unlike what goes on in most kitchens, not much cooking happens in Barroso's. ``We boil some things,'' he says, such as potatoes, carrots, eggs, and sometimes rice for the primates. But otherwise, there's a lot of mixing and chopping going on.
What's a typical day like? There really isn't one, Barroso says. There's always a change in routine. He says he usually gets to work at 6:30 or 7 a.m. and leaves around 3:30 p.m. During the day, he and his staff weigh out and prepare certain mixes, keep in touch with the keepers (who deliver the food to the animals), clean up, maybe do some research, and order more food.
``We do a lot of ordering in bulk,'' Barroso says. In one year, the zoo goes through about 77,000 pounds of sweet potatoes; 221,000 apples; 25,000 heads of lettuce; 23,000 lbs. of bananas; and 26,000 lbs. of carrots. Since he orders such huge amounts - usually 50 lbs. at one time - he receives some interesting sizes of produce lumped in. ``We've seen five-pound carrots and four-pound sweet potatoes,'' he says.
Very often, tour groups and groups of schoolchildren visit Barroso in his kitchen. He talks with them about the animals and their food. ``If they ask me, `What do you feed the lions?' I joke with them and say, `Oh, sometimes little kids!' '' he says, with a laugh.
Barroso has developed more than 100 recipes. If he were to feed, say, seven iguanas, here's the recipe he'd make:
7 soaked monkey biscuits
1/2 handful chopped
1/4 cantaloupe or honeydew
3/4 can of dog food
1/2 cup fruit mix
1/2 cup squash calabash
1/2 cup yellow squash
2 hibiscus flowers
Barroso says the colobus monkeys are the most difficult animals to feed.
``They're just a real fragile animal; you've got be real careful with them,'' Barroso says. ``They're picky. They're the type of animal that eats a little bit now, a little bit later - or they don't eat it at all.''
Probably the easiest animals to please are the elephants. With them, ``we don't waste anything,'' Barroso says. ``They eat leftovers - grapes, apples, even banana peels!''
And we thought they liked only peanuts.