No Need To Feed The Animals

Gnashing on the stalk of a banana tree, a 3-year-old gorilla thumped his chest and rolled among the palms and shrubs in a habitat resembling an African forest.
News About Animals
In reality, he was at Florida's newest theme park eating greenery that had been prepared in an immaculate kitchen worthy of the human guests at Walt Disney World.

Making meals for the more than 1,000 animals at Disney's latest theme park, Animal Kingdom, is no small task when the animals consume two tons of food each day. It's particularly challenging for a company more used to animatronics in its theme parks than flesh and blood critters.

Feeding the animals is a crucial part of their well-being, especially as Disney comes under federal scrutiny for the unrelated deaths of 12 animals just days before the park opens to the public Wednesday.

"The animals get the same quality of food as Disney guests," said Dr. Peregrine Wolff, the park's director of veterinary services.

Oranges that end up on the breakfast tables of Disney resort hotels come from the same shipment as the ones fed to the park's monkeys. The horse meat eaten by the park's lions and cheetahs is inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Disney chefs from the resort hotels who have seen the kitchen where workers' prepare the animals' food are surprised at how large it is. The kitchen also has refrigerated rooms for fruits, vegetables and tree leaves.

"The chefs are jealous of our kitchen," Wolff said.

Although Disney officials are promoting it as an animal park [they are reluctant to call it a zoo], there's no mistaking Animal Kingdom for anything but a theme park. There is a thrill ride, Countdown to Extinction, in an area of the park known as DinoLand U.S.A. A turn-of-the-century era train whisks guests between parts of the park.

And while Disney has had animals at its 11-acre zoological park, Discovery Island, the company has never had to feed and maintain animals in such a large numbers.

It can present problems.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is investigating Disney in the deaths of four cheetah cubs, two rhinos, two hippos and four other creatures at or en route to Animal Kingdom. Inspectors were at the theme park last week but USDA officials won't say when their investigation will be finished.

Earlier this decade, Disney pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in federal court that workers had beaten to death vultures that invaded Discovery Island. The company was closely monitored by regulatory agencies after that.

The Animal Rights Foundation of Florida plans to protest at the park's opening Wednesday. Disney says it's giving the animals the best reatment possible.

Indeed, Disney has hired some of the top animal keepers in the country. The handlers keep careful track of the animals behavior and eating habits to make sure nothing is wrong, according to Disney.

Next to sex, the most enjoyable part of these animals' lives in captivity is food, according to the creatures' keepers. It not only nourishes them but also provides some needed entertainment to pass the time.

As a result, keepers have made their mealtimes playful by sprinkling popcorn, corn flakes, peanuts and cooked pasta in bedding and other areas that require a search.

"Almost all the animals, the vast amount of their time [in the wild] is spent looking for food," said Joseph Rindler, who oversees the food preparation for the animals.

The food is prepared in an airy, clean kitchen. One large steel counter is used in preparing meals of carnivores, who make up about 10 percent of the park's animals. The other steel counter is used for the herbivores, who constitute 60 percent of the inhabitants, and omnivores, the remaining 30 percent of the animals.

The most complicated diet -- for gorillas -- takes an hour to prepare. The park's 10 gorillas get 15 pounds of fiber-enriched biscuits, five pounds of mixed vegetables and leaves from bamboo, banana, hibiscus and mulberry trees grown on Disney property.

The animals haven't taken to some of the park's innovations. The giraffes didn't like Lazy Susans on the top of trees that were to be used to rotate water and leaves. They are instead munching on real trees.

The biggest eaters, far and away, are the elephants.

The park's seven elephants eat a total of 1,000 pounds of freshly-cut grass each day. Vendors in the Orlando area have planted 50 acres of grass just for the elephants. The 14,000-pound animals also need 10 pounds of an alfafa-based pellets and 70 pounds of hay each day.

Smitten with the perpetual munchies, the elephants often resort to snacking off trees and grass on the savannah. In the wild, the animals would eat up to 17 hours a day.

Disney has put in 2.3 million plants to keep the animals happy.

"This is the first [Disney] park, really, that the inhabitants eat," said Disney spokesman Rick Sylvain.

Written by Mike Schneider
©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed