Zoo nutritionists are responsible for managing the dietary requirements of exotic animals kept in zoos. They may work with an assortment of exotic animals and must understand the unique dietary needs of each species Some zoos—like the Saint Louis Zoo—have more than 18,000 animals to feed.
Zoo Nutritionist Duties
Zoo nutritionists oversee all aspects of nutritional management for a wide variety of animals kept in the zoo environment. They are responsible for designing diets for hundreds of species, ensuring that each animal consumes a well-balanced ration with the proper caloric content. They also make adjustments to the rations of animals needing to gain or lose weight, those that are pregnant or lactating, animals that have been ill, or new animals that are transitioning into the zoo’s dietary program. This process involves keeping nutritional records, monitoring diet consumption, monitoring weight changes, and reviewing diets periodically to ensure that all needs are being met.
As a part of their management role, zoo nutritionists must supervise zoo commissary keepers as they prepare, assemble, and distribute rations. They also must work closely with other staff members such as the zoo veterinarian, zoo veterinary technicians, and zookeepers to monitor animal health.
Zoo nutritionists are tasked with ensuring that food safety procedures are in place, with special attention focused on proper food storage and handling. They also are responsible for ordering ration ingredients and evaluating purchased items to be sure they are fresh and of high quality. Budgeting and cost analysis may also be one of their responsibilities tied to the ordering process. At some facilities, zoo nutritionists may be involved with conducting and publishing nutrition-related research.
Zoo nutritionists can also find work in other animal nutrition roles including research and development for pet or livestock feed. They can also transition into zoo management roles.
Education and Training
A graduate degree in nutrition, animal science, biology, or a closely related area is required for employment as a zoo nutritionist. A Ph.D. degree is mandatory for most positions in this field.
Zoo nutritionists must have excellent communication skills, leadership abilities, and strong organizational skills. Record keeping is a critical element of this position, so the candidate should be extremely detail-oriented. Computer literacy is also very important, as most record-keeping and nutritional analyses are managed digitally.
Zoo internships, wildlife rehabilitation internships, and animal nutrition internships can help an aspiring zoo nutritionist to gain valuable practical experience working with exotic animals.
Compensation for professionals in this role can vary widely based on the nutritionist’s level of education, years of experience, and the funding available to the zoo where they work.
While specific data on the niche of zoo nutritionists is not readily available due to the limited number of available positions in this field, most animal nutritionists earn a solid salary. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) cited an average annual wage for all food scientists of $58,380 in the most recent salary survey of 2018.
Indeed.com cited a similar average salary ($50,814 per year) for animal nutritionists in 2018. SimplyHired also cited an average salary of $53,000 per year for animal nutritionists in 2018.
Zoo Nutritionist Career Outlook
There are very few zoo nutritionists, so finding a position in this field can be quite challenging. Only large zoos in major metropolitan areas tend to be able to keep a full-time zoo nutritionist on staff, though the number of positions is slowly increasing each year. A few zoos (like the National Zoo in Washington D.C.) have multiple zoo nutritionists on staff. Candidates with a Ph.D. degree and significant experience with exotic animals will continue to enjoy the best job prospects in the field.