20 January 2021

From vegetarian gorillas to otters with a taste for rainbow trout, the animals at Melbourne Zoo are kept well-fed and happy. Here’s how. Words by Jo Davy

If you think your grocery shopping list is getting out of hand, spare a thought for Melbourne Zoo’s Food Store Manager Colin Van Dyk.

Each week, Melbourne Zoo’s 3,197 animals munch their way through about three tonnes of fruit and vegetables, 172 kilograms of meat, 40 hay bales, 6,000 mealworms and 150 yabbies — and it’s Colin’s responsibility to keep the five kitchens stocked.

Every animal has a specific diet developed by the Zoo’s vet team to make sure their individual nutritional needs are met.

Otana, the silverback Western Lowland Gorilla, chows down on about 90 kilograms of vegetables and greens per week, as well as pellets and leafy browse.

Meanwhile, Sam the Platypus enjoys a more modest diet of 2.5 kilograms of yabbies, plus a selection of worms and fly pupae.

“My role is to make sure the different departments have all the ingredients they need to make up the animals’ diets,” Colin says.

Zoos Victoria tries to source food locally as much as possible, which means Colin is up early four mornings a week to collect fruit and vegetable donations from suppliers at Melbourne Market in Epping.

The Zoo also receives regular deliveries of fresh produce throughout the week.

Meat is another staple of many animals’ diets — Ndidi the African Lion gets through 30 kilograms a week — and Colin and his team are careful to source all animal products from operations that adhere to RSPCA guidelines around welfare and humane slaughter.

Hay, fish, insects and seeds make up the bulk of the shopping list, but there are also some specialty items to source: rainbow trout for the otters and goat for the Zoo’s reticulated python.

Some food, such as bamboo for the Red Pandas and plants for the butterflies, are even grown on site.

“We look at food miles and try to source locally where we can, but with some of the special diets it just isn’t possible,” Colin says.

The Keepers are responsible for food preparation, which for some of the bigger appetites can be a full-time job in itself.

“Our elephant herd would eat the most of any animal at Melbourne Zoo,” Colin says.

“The Keepers use their food as enrichment and provide it in different ways to keep them busy for a big part of the day.”

Feeding time while the zoo was closed due to public health restrictions presented new challenges for Melbourne Zoo, both in sourcing and in delivering food for the animals.

Keepers have been maintaining rigorous hygiene practices so that they can continue to distribute food to the animals.