Lions and Tigers and Bear Fare, Oh My!
Alumnus Mike Maslanka oversees all nutritional requirements for every animal at the Smithsonian's National Zoo
As senior nutritionist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C., Mike Maslanka (M.S. ’97) attends daily to the unique dietary needs of nearly 1,800 animals across 360 species, ranging from small amphibians to Asian elephants. It’s a challenging job, but one for which Maslanka arrived well prepared thanks to his graduate work at the U of M.
As part of his master’s degree in nutritional physiology, Maslanka worked most closely with dairy cows, which he found have much in common with more exotic species regarding nutrition. This led to greater curiosity about the nutritional requirements of exotic species.
“It’s very easy within domestic animal science to become myopic,” Maslanka says. “We know a lot about domestic animals, but comparatively little about free-ranging wildlife in terms of nutrition. For me it was a constant battle between the small slice of pie that I was learning as a graduate student in animal science, and the big pie that is every other species known to humankind.”
After earning his master’s degree, Maslanka completed a zoo nutrition residency at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. From there he worked at the Memphis Zoo for two years, followed by stints at the Fort Worth Zoo and the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. He joined the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in 2007.
Maslanka oversees a staff of 13. The commissary, where all meals are prepared, is a 23,000-square-foot space that includes a kitchen, industrial freezers, and a warehouse. The facility feeds all of the animals at the zoo, as well as those at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in nearby Front Royal, Virginia.
The department of nutrition science strives to duplicate the most nutritious components of an animal’s natural diet. A wide variety of foods are used to create the meals, including raw meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, mealworms, other insects, and much more. Some animal diets are extremely specialized: The zoo’s giant pandas, for example, eat mostly bamboo, which is grown onsite, as is most of the hay the zoo uses each year.
Providing a high-quality diet to so many different species isn’t cheap. According to Maslanka, the zoo’s annual food budget exceeds $1 million, and it’s easy to understand why. “We use a lot of fruit,” he says. “We go through half a ton of bananas a month, and probably seven tons of different kinds of greens each year. We’ll use commercial dog and cat food based on the species, but we also have a lot of foods that are specifically designed for exotics.”
Feeding the animals at the zoo is only part of Maslanka’s job. He and his team also work closely with the veterinary department, focusing on the role of nutrition in maintaining animal health. Maslanka is often present during medical procedures to provide a general evaluation of the animal’s overall condition, which helps with discussions about dietary changes or concerns. “The veterinary department regularly includes nutrition in email discussions or meetings to talk about problems and find a path forward to address things that have a nutritional basis,” notes the Zoo’s chief veterinarian, Donald Neiffer, D.V.M.
Research is another aspect of Maslanka’s job. His work is currently focused on two areas: milk composition and nutritional ecology. The former is informed by the fact that the Smithsonian’s National Zoo houses the largest collection of exotic animal milk in the world. The latter has taken Maslanka around the globe, including a trip to the Galapagos Islands, where he studied the diets of free-ranging Galapagos tortoises.
Maslanka credits his graduate experience at the U of M with preparing him for his job. In fact, he still has all of his class notes, which he considers a ready resource.
“I learned early on that nobody was having the same experience that I was having, and that helped me to become a bit more independent,” he says. “I had a great cohort of peers in graduate school, and friends within the animal science department who helped me get through that process. The value of that support structure in my career has been huge.”
Working with dairy cows and learning about farm management was also deeply informative, he says. “As simple as it sounds, it’s quite complex because you have an entire ecosystem on a dairy farm. There are so many moving parts and pieces, and that reminds me a lot of what we do here on a daily basis at the National Zoo,” Maslanka explains. “Learning a systems approach to dairy farm management really helped in learning the systems approach to managing zoo animal nutrition, and understanding that we’re not doing it in a vacuum. Learning to think through the complexities of something like a dairy farm still helps me to this day.”
Don Vaughan is a freelance writer in Raleigh, North Carolina.