There are plenty of reasons to envy zoo animals: they have large homes to roam. They can make as much noise as they want. People will care about them no matter what they do. Essentially, they’re the Kardashians, just with less Ryan Seacrest-approved TV coverage.
The most enviable part of the lifestyle, though, is that zoo animals have a whole team of people whose job is to feed them. But not all zoo diets are created equal.To isolate the best ones, we hit up the St. Louis Zoo's team of curators, keepers, and nutritionists to find out which animals have the most interesting diets. These 12 creatures made the cut for a variety of reasons (type of food, delivery system, quantity, etc.), but they all get much more than a bucket of bugs. Put on your pith helmet and get educated. Then start a petition asking E! to replace its current programming with clips of cute animals eating.
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Contrary to what The Lion King would have you believe, hyenas don't primarily consume adorable, musical lion cubs. They're a big fan of rats, so the keepers store a huge stash of frozen rodents at the nutrition center. Once it's feeding time, they thaw the rats out just enough and hide them around the hyena habitat for the animals to find. (Also a quick note from the zoo: since hyenas are female-dominated, the ladies usually collect all the rats first. Suck it, dude hyenas.) Daily beef bones or hides are also on the menu, and while the hyenas don't like to eat the zoo's house-grown herbs (because ew, vegetables), they do like to roll around in lemongrass and basil just for fun.
Thanks to the tireless work of Sir Mix-a-lot and Nicki Minaj, it's easy to forget the anaconda is an actual animal and not just a euphemism. Every two to three months, keepers feed this 200lb predator an entire, 25-35lb pig. Which the snake then swallows whole. The process takes about half an hour, but purging that sight from your collection of nightmares takes at least three weeks.
As you know, hippos are hungry, hungry creatures. Most of their diet consists of "herbivore pellets" (like the primate biscuits, these things have tons of nutrients) and hay. Keepers also toss whole cantaloupes into the hippos' mouths from time to time, but the hippopotamus dessert is really where it's at. It's fruit frozen inside a giant bucket of water, which means it's pretty much a gigantic zoo popsicle.
Much like Arby's, African painted dogs are all about the meats. They're served a steady stream of raw meat and bones each day, but once a month, the keepers kick things up a notch. They drop a whole pig carcass into the pack's habitat and let the carnivores go nuts. The practice is meant to strengthen the dogs' social bonds (nothing brings you together like a dead pig, amiright?!) and get them in tune with their natural eating strategies. If you show up to the zoo at the right time, you can even witness this feast in real time.
Since gorillas are so similar to us, you'd assume their diet consists of pizza bagels, burritos, and way too many French fries. But the zoo nutritionist is a little more health-minded than you are, so gorillas get tons and tons of veggies. Broccoli, kale, leeks, sweet potatoes, carrots, and bell peppers are all in the mix, along with a "primate biscuit" boosted with nutrients. The gorillas still get to have a little fun, though -- around Halloween, the keepers will stuff a bunch of the apes' favorite treats in a carved jack-o-lantern.
You know how you hide your dog's heartworm meds in peanut butter? Zookeepers do something similar to get the sea lions to take their vitamins -- except they place the pills in the gills of a fish. Along with their daily "vitamin fish," sea lions feast on a variety of capelin, mackerel, and herring. They also get "dessert" in the form of squid.
First things first: this guy is an endangered lemur, and he's only found in Madagascar. He's a plant-eater, so the zoo supplements his primate biscuit with iceberg and romaine lettuces, kale, cabbage, and winged sumac, a plant grown on-site specifically for the animals. But sifakas apparently also like ballpark snacks, so they get peanuts (in the shell) as treats.
You can probably guess where this is going, but the Amur tiger eats a lot of other dead animals. Males get about 10lbs of raw meat a day (including a whole rabbit), while females receive about 7lbs. The keepers will also feed them beef shanks and bones, and if they're extra good, they get deer hides.
The zoo's vultures are fed just six days a week, because they have crippling impulse control issues. (Kidding: it's because they don't typically eat every day in the wild.) They get whole rabbits and rats, as well as beef femur bones. Also, fun fact: vulture vomit is incredibly acidic, so you do not wanna be around these guys when they get stomach bugs.
The Malayan sun bear is an omnivore, so his entree is a nutritionally-engineered "kibble" similar to the stuff your lab eats. But sun bears also get some sweet potatoes, carrots, and corn -- and just to further the Pooh bear comparisons, the keepers will place honey and blueberries in their puzzle feeders, so they get permission to play with their food.
There's no good reason to envy the meerkat's meals -- unless you're super into mealworms and crickets. But the presentation gets some points. Keepers hide live worms in clumps of mulch so the little guys have to dig for their dinner, and they stuff crickets in cardboard tubes that the meerkats must sniff out. Errant pears, grapes, and carrots also find their way into the meerkat habitat.
This African insect, which hunts by camouflaging itself among dried leaves, mostly eats flies. That's not super interesting on its own, but because the ghost mantis is a real diva, zookeepers actually hand-feed it the bugs via tweezer. For serious: there's a video and everything.
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Kristin Hunt is a staff writer for Thrillist, and would like someone to deliver her a jack-o-lantern with all her favorite foods. Follow her to shipping labels at @kristin_hunt.