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It’s not Just Pets and People: Zoo Animals Suffer from Epidemic of Obesity

Most people know that obsesity is a, er, growing problem in pets and people the world over. And an article in the April 4, 2008...

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Apr 7th 2008


Most people know that obsesity is a, er, growing problem in pets and people the world over. And an article in the April 4, 2008 issue of The Week points out another group that is prone to weight problems: zoo animals.

America’s obesity epidemic is spreading to the nation’s zoos. Veterinary nutritionists report that gorillas, lions, and other zoo dwellers have been packing on the pounds, prompting many zoos to bring in diet and fitness experts to help them create a healthier lifestyle for their captives.

Wild animals are almost never overweight. They spend most of their waking hours searching for food, and that consumes energy. As well, food in the wild is scarce. These factors combine to make obesity almost unknown in the wild.

However, captive animals become unwilling metaphorical couch potatoes. They get much less exercise, and their food is provided regularly.

I have worked with and visited many zoos, and I know that they are doing their best with limited space, money, and resources. Zoos are vital for helping humans connect with and respect animals, and for maintaining genetic diversity in species whose habitats are threatened or gone. It is not possible for a zoo to provide a tiger with the space that the big cat truly needs. The tiger exhibit would take up many square miles, and no visitors would ever see the tiger in such a large habitat.

So, what can the zoos do? They are attempting to reduce the calories that are offered, and to increase the exercise that each inhabitant gets. As well, they are modifying their training protocols. From the article:

Zoo trainers who have traditionally used treats such as molasses and granola bars to coax or reward animals are starting to rely instead on low-calorie offerings such as sugar-free Jell-O and alfalfa biscuits.