Sunday, March 13, 2016

Food Prep Skills

I gots skills.  

Mad skills.  Skillz, even.

With each job I have.

And you do, too, if you've ever worked/interned at a zoo or aquarium and had anything to do with food prep and feeding animals.  Because let's face it, you're probably doing at least ONE thing that is sort of off-the-wall when it comes to making an animal's diet for the day. 

This may come as a surprise to those of you not in the zoological field.  That's probably because you haven't had the glorious pleasure of spending hours in a food prep area (in my case, a fish kitchen).  Maybe when you hear that marine mammal trainers spend a good chunk of their day (usually the earliest part of the day) "sorting through fish" you think of a pile of dead fish and some lucky boy or girl slinging them into a bucket.  Or, when you see us feeding animals, it seems as simple as placing a meal in an exhibit, or tossing food to an animal's mouth, or handing it to them.  Simple simple simple.  Any moron can feed a dolphin, right?

Who's Moran?

HA! What all of us animal care professionals know is that some of our animals have special dietary needs.  Maybe they're old, maybe they have a medical condition, maybe they are super picky.  I've worked at five marine mammal facilities and each one has required me to be proficient in some culinary skill.  

Because I'm so proud of these abilities, I'm going to share them with all of you.


Well, at least break part of you up

I can fillet a fish.  Small, small fish, with swift prowess. Many of the older dolphins I've worked with needed their fish filleted.  Pounds and pounds of herring.  Occasionally, capelin if we were making a fish slurry.   You go ahead and try to fillet a herring.  I'll bet it looks about as put-together as Donald Trump's hair.  But don't worry, that's how we all start.  In time, you'll pick up that herring and free it from its muscle without a rib bone in sight.

Fish Chipping

Side note: we should do some form of zookeeper Chopped

Anyone can rip a fish in half.  Well, okay, that's not true.  I can't rip a basking shark in half with my bare hands.  But smaller  (DEAD) fish are easier to main and dismember.  It sounds gruesome, doesn't it?  

Anyhoo, I worked at one facility whose sea lions and seals were used to fish pieces.  The supervisor at the time showed all of us a method of chunking capelin into bite-sized pieces.....with one hand.  Witness:

For those of you wondering, I'm using a "bad" capelin and doing this over a trash-fish bucket.  Just for demonstration purposes. 

This fish-chipping thang took me MONTHS to figure out.  But, it was part of the job, and I needed to master it.  So I practiced, practiced, practiced.  Eventually, one-handed fish-chipping was part of my repertoire.  A skill I hope to use again one day, if only to impress someone in a bar somewhere or something.

Fish Gutting

Do do do do do do do you have it?

Picture this: a dead fish resting in your left hand.  You, plunging your finger into its gills and ripping a large fissure down through its belly.  With maniacal glee, you scoop out the guts and gills, admiring the coagulated jelly-like blood of the heart, the delicate tissue of the stomach, and the dark red blood running down your gloved hands.  Does this sound like a skill you'd like to possess?  Of COURSE you do!

Why are some fish gutted?  Some dolphins are prone to a condition called iron-storage disease, where they um, store too much iron (I love aptly-named things).   Removing the guts from fish can help reduce the amount of iron the dolphins get in their diet.  It also allows the trainers to practice a little friendly catharsis.  Can't be mad at the woman screaming at the Safeway for someone to PLEASE RING HER UP right in your ear scaring you close to death when you can release all those negative feelings by ripping out a herring alimentary tract.

Pill-Stuffing for Otters


To date, this remains the most challenging feeding procedure I have ever experienced.  I'm lucky enough to have cared for both North American and Asian small-clawed otters (herein called NAROs and ASCOs, respectively), all of whom had members who:

1. Were picky eaters
2. Had medication needs

This is one of the worst combinations in animal husbandry, I don't care what anyone says.  This is especially impossible if the animals chew their food.  Even worse, if they're otters.  Because otters do virtually NOTHING subtly*. 

Why are these one of my favorite animals again?

Some of the NAROs I cared for at the time were very geriatric and had a lot of typical old-man problems, including joint issues.  So they were on medications to help them with their discomfort, which were really important for them to get for their quality of life.  However, this wasn't apparent to these otters.  The ASCOs needed heartworm preventative every month.  All of this resulted in a need to artfully hide their pills in their fish.

This (or some version of this) should hang in otter fish kitchens everywhere.

If you have an animal who swallows food/barely chews it, this is no problem for the most part.  But not so for chewers.  The key is to crush the pill, and hide it with flavor and texture so well that the animals (ideally) don't even realize they just got their meds, or (less ideally) don't realize it until the last minute but you can shove another piece of food in their face as a chaser.

Here are some of the food prep skills I acquired in my time caring for otters:

1. Crushing pills in 1/56ths of a second with the broad side of a giant knife

2. Advanced alchemy and taste experimentation with cat food, fish oil, pill-of-choice, and
    fish guts

3. Fish oil-to-ivermectin ratio to completely hide ivermectin's taste (okay, I lied.  I never
    mastered this)


There was something delightful about pulverizing a pill, mixing it with fish oil until it was an appetizing-looking paste (one looked like pistachio pudding), removing capelin guts with one quick motion, placing the pistachio pudding inside the gutted capelin, and carefully placing the guts back inside, like a cap.  Oh, memories.

Here's the ironic thing.  I am so good at the aforementioned tasks, you'd think this culinary aptitude would translate easily in my own kitchen.  Maybe, my extant culinary prowess is WHY I'm so good at the weird food prep stuff.  Alas, this is not the case.  Not by a long shot.  I am the worst cook in the Northern hemisphere.  I burn everything. All cookware have restraining orders against me, especially frying pans.  I am terrified of cutting my fingers when I chop vegetables so they always come out in bizarre and ever-widening shapes.  Don't even talk about cutting onions, because I can't even be in the same county when that's happening.

Tobey Maguire, the poor man's Jake Gyllenhaal**

I'm not sure if some bizarre physiological shift in my hands/brain occurs the moment I'm not at work anymore, but I am completely worthless in feeding myself unless we are talking about the two things I can make, such as Kraft macaroni and cheese and also cookies.

Oh well, that's just my lot in life.  But now I want to hear about your weird food prep/animal feeding tasks!  As the saying goes, there's more than one way to prepare a herring.


* Except jam rocks into pipes

** Tobey, if you're reading this, I like you better.


  1. So this was not a post I should have read while eating breakfast!

  2. the facility I used to intern at cut fish sometimes to increase the amount of reinforcers for a session. We had contests to see who could cut the most fish at once, but they had to be clean cuts. No spilled capelin guts or eggs! Sharpened knife day once a week was my favorite day in the kitchen :)

  3. I am a team member of a 7 member team in the animal kitchen for a 125 acre zoo. Our kitchen is currently open from 6AM to 6:30pm. We have 4 diet prep stations that in total make a combined 500+ diets per day. Sounds like you have more mad skills in the seafood area of diet prep as 75% of our daily prep is produce related, we got ya covered on the veggies and fruits. I think my least favorite is using thiamin-e paste on the fish we feed to our pelicans. Though honestly my least favorite part of prep is all the meat diets in general, dont know why. We make so many diets and have so many specifics o those diets I cant honestly say what is and isnt weird. I do remember from running a commissary at a previous zoo that one of our cheetah's refused to eat any ground meat that wasnt "fluffy". Meaning we had to make sure her diet was on top and didnt get squished into a pancake, otherwise she wouldnt touch it.

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  5. One of the frequent fliers at the kennel I worked at wouldn't eat his kibble unless I sat on the floor and threw individual pieces of it in different directions. Still not sure what options we exhausted to come to that conclusion, but whatever works!