Ann Ward has an elephant-sized job. As the Fort Worth Zoo’s nutrition director, she’s in charge of making sure the zoo’s 7,000 animals are nourished.

Listen to Seth Bodine’s radio story, which aired on KERA and The Texas Standard.

In the morning, an assembly line works to cut, portion and package meat, fish and fruits for animals to feast on the next morning. The center also acts as a sort of test kitchen – figuring out what each animal will eat and what they won’t.

“Animals have taste preferences,” Ward said. “It would be really nice to say, hey, we just feed the same diet to every penguin, or each gorilla gets the same exact diet. But they won’t necessarily eat the same exact diet.”

More and more, Ward is watching the prices for the food go up. Usually, she can expect prices to rise by about 3% every year. Lately, though, the percentage is much higher. She expects produce prices, for example, to increase by about 8%, which means about $10,000 more in spending than usual. 

“My manager who orders produce told me that the price of green leaf (lettuce) had just gone up to $50 a case from one of the suppliers,” Ward said. “Normally, it’s around $20.”

Produce makes up less than 20% of Ward’s $1.2 million annual food budget. But she’s also seen price increases in fish, meat and forages. Supply chain snarls, increased gas prices and labor shortages are a few reasons for the price increases, Ward said. 

If price increases continue, Ward and her team will have to be strategic with finding nutritious alternatives to make the zoo’s food budget last. 

Someone with a knife cuts pears on a cutting board.
A nutrition services staff member cuts a pear at the Fort Worth zoo Sept. 27. Each animal needs different portions of food. (Seth Bodine | Fort Worth Report)

As the country faces the highest rate of inflation in nearly 40 years, zoo nutritionists like Ward are finding ways to budget, substitute and search for good deals to keep the animals well-fed and healthy. 

 In the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a 14.2%  price leap in September compared to the same time last year — the highest jump since March 1974. 

Making sure the animals are eating the right nutritious food is important for their health and reproduction, Ward said. Those nutrients put the animals in better shape for raising their young and stimulates the behaviors they would normally demonstrate in the wild. 

Some animals, like elephants and rhinos, eat 50 to 100 pounds of food a day. 

An elephant raises its trunk as a woman puts a biscuit into its mouth.
Christine Del Turco, the Fort Worth Zoo’s lead elephant trainer, feeds Brazos, a young elephant born at the zoo in 2021, a monkey biscuit. The biscuits are also fed to monkeys at the zoo, but have the same nutritional value for elephants and rhinos. Del Turco calls the biscuits “elephant tic tacs.” Even though they’re made for primates, they can be fed to leaf eaters.(Seth Bodine | Fort Worth Report)

Oftentimes, Ward can use substitutes and still provide the animals the same nutrients. 

“It’s not like they have to have (strawberries),” Ward said. “They need the nutrients that (are) in the strawberry. So when things get really high, I can substitute other produce items. Or I can remove things that might be in the diet for a variety, which we still think is important.” 

But some foods are hard to substitute for more picky eaters – like the zoo’s collection of amphibians and reptiles, which eat 10 million insects a year. Horned lizards, for example, only eat harvester ants. There’s only one harvester ant supplier in the U.S., Ward said, located in Utah. 

“So he can pretty much charge what he wants,” she said. “But that’s a real big challenge for us.”

Finding fish has been another pain point lately because the industry has been challenged, she said. The price of herring, for example, has increased from $1.15 to $2 a pound. Zoo staff have to find sustainable sources to avoid supporting overfishing and find fish that the penguins actually like — they only eat fish at a certain size. 

Ann Ward, the Fort Worth Zoo’s nutrition director, stands inside the nutrition services building Sept. 27. All food is portioned, packaged and labeled for the animals to meet their nutrition needs. (Seth Bodine | Fort Worth Report)

The nutrition team gets its leafy greens from the same vendors as restaurants and stores, along with local farmers markets. If prices are high, they try calling other vendors to get the best deals. When they can, they get donations. 

“We’re hoping to go back to where we were actually working with a local grocery store and getting some of their ugly produce,” Ward said. “I think our challenge with donations is you’ll see we have a very large facility, and we keep a lot of stock. So sometimes when you can get a donation, it’s not going to last really long.”

Another strategy is trying to lock in contracts for the year to steady the price of the year’s 205 metric tons of hay. She can also put six months worth of food in the freezer. 

Still, for the first time in Ward’s 29 years at the zoo, suppliers are charging a fuel surcharge because of the price of diesel going up. 

Food is just one chunk of the zoo’s expenses. 

The Fort Worth Zoo’s chief financial officer, Megan Deen, said she’s seeing price increases across the board. Concessions, merchandise, labor and construction costs for the zoo’s expansion plans are all more expensive, she said. 

“We’re taking all of these price increases into consideration as we look at (the budget) … the next 12 months,” Deen said. 

The good news, she said, is that visitation to the zoo is up. This year, the zoo received nearly 1.2 million visitors, providing a key source of revenue to continue the organization’s expansion plans and keep animals well-fed. 

“I think it’ll continue kind of on that track in the coming year,” Deen said. 

Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at seth.bodine@fortworthreport.org and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.

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Seth Bodine

Seth Bodine is the business reporter for the Fort Worth Report. He previously covered agriculture and rural issues in Oklahoma for the public radio station, KOSU, as a Report for America corps member....