Business Columns & Blogs

Nancy Napier: Squeamish? Don't read this. Curious about problem solving? Read this.

In the wild, sloth bears eat ants and termites. At Zoo Boise, they eat mealworms, the larval form of the mealworm beetle. Animal and weather permitting, visitors may take part in feeding sloth bears through a feeding tube from 2:30 to 3 daily by buying mealworms for $3.
In the wild, sloth bears eat ants and termites. At Zoo Boise, they eat mealworms, the larval form of the mealworm beetle. Animal and weather permitting, visitors may take part in feeding sloth bears through a feeding tube from 2:30 to 3 daily by buying mealworms for $3.

Reader alert: This column has a wee bit of an “eww” factor. If you are squeamish about food, or rather about what zoo animals eat, move on to sports or movies. But I’m fascinated by what one organization does in a super-efficient and effective manner that perhaps the rest of us could learn from.

Zoo Boise has 300 individual animal residents (the cockroach “collection” counts as one resident, however, and I’m not certain the zookeepers know how many butterflies there are). But for those other animals, take a guess at what the zoo spends on food every year? When I ask people that question, the guesses range from half a million to $2 million a year. Sit down.

The zoo spends about $125,000 a year feeding its animals, which works out to about $342 per day to feed those 300 plus residents. Granted, some eat every day (or twice a day like penguins), while others may eat every few weeks (the python), but still, that seems like good financial and operational management to me. I was curious how the zoo was able to do it.

First, some of the food is grown on site. Next time you visit, notice the bamboo plants. They are everywhere — the red pandas eat little else. The bamboo plants also provide some shade and natural fences between exhibits, and it just keeps on growing.

The “zoo kitchen” also grows some insects like mealworms and crickets. Sloth bears, those 350-pound black furry balls with the white “necklaces,” love mealworms. When the zookeepers slide them into the exhibit through a pipe, the bears lumber over and then dig for them in the dirt.

Likewise, Patas monkeys go wild for crickets. They love to scamper around their dens catching them. It keeps their brains active as well.

In addition, the zoo buys much of its food from providers who make you smile or cringe, if you’re not in the business. Krill for jellyfish. Smelt and kapelin for penguins. Insectivore diet, which looks like Grape-Nuts for anteaters. Bones for the big cats one day a week to keep the tartar off their teeth.

Then there are the pinkies.

Of course, every industry has its suppliers. I just never thought about what a zoo needed, especially when it comes to carnivores. Big cats eat horse meat, imported from Canada, since it resembles the game they would hunt in the wild. The python eats rabbits. The birds of prey (condor, eagle, hawk, owls) eat guinea pigs and other small rodents.

Sure enough, the supplier firms come through and even have (to the outsider) a sense of humor in their names. Companies like Rodent Pro or Gourmet Rodent supply frozen mice, rats, rabbits and guinea pigs. And the last time I checked Rodent Pro’s website, there was a sale on extra-small pinky mice, 17 cents each. They are called “pinkies” because they are pink, but also because they are about the size and look of the last knuckle of a man’s pinky finger. The frozen rodents, along with some fruit and vegetables, rest in shelves in the zoo kitchen’s industrial-size freezer.

So what on earth could business organizations learn from the zoo’s food operations?

The biggest idea I take away is the ability the zoo has to solve several problems with one solution. Using bamboo as food, as a barrier to carve off areas within the physical space, and as a welcome shade provider in the summer solves three problems, and is also cost-effective. Likewise, crickets as a food source, but also as a way to stimulate the monkeys’ brains, solves multiple problems.

So how do other organizations get a three-for-one type of benefit? Start looking in yours.

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