Sugar-free treats and healthy snacks for animals part of zoos’ increasing focus on nutrition

CHICAGO – Gorillas on Weight Watchers? Polar bears slurping sugar-free Jell-O shots? Giraffes nibbling alfalfa biscuits?

The days of letting visitors throw marshmallows to the animals are history at zoos around the country, replaced by a growing focus on diet and nutrition that parallels the fitness craze in humans.

And thanks to mounting research at the Toledo Zoo and other zoos on wild animals’ food needs, today’s zoo staffers are trying new feeding tricks to keep their lions and tigers and bears healthy and happy.

Avoiding obesity is part of the program.

Like humans, many zoo animals “like the good stuff. They like the sugary, high-fat food, and they’re not moving as much as they’re genetically programmed to,” said Jennifer Watts, staff nutritionist at suburban Brookfield Zoo, west of Chicago.

Adding to the challenge is that food is used for training and to help keep animals psychologically stimulated. Too much “enrichment” can result in love handles, even on bears and gorillas.

So Watts is hatching a Weight Watchers-style plan for the beasts. The idea is to assign points to food and allow the animals a limited number of extra points a week.

For example, molasses is a favorite treat of the bears and gorillas. Keepers often spread it around their enclosures to get them moving. Under Watts’ plan, two cups of molasses might be worth two points, and granola bars – a favorite bear treat – would be worth one.

“We’re trying to keep calorie intake within a limit. … We are very vigilant about monitoring the animals’ weight, because, like humans, it can lead to other health problems,” Watts said.

Keepers at the Indianapolis Zoo are trying a different approach. Instead of fattening sweets, they offer sugar-free Jell-O to their polar bears, hiding the treats around the habitat.

“It tastes good, but is calorie-free,” said nutritionist Jason Williams.