Student stories: Alumna decides what beasts should eat

For most, the thought of working with exotic animals brings to mind the humid jungles of South America and the vast planes of Africa. Barbara Toddes, however, discovered that one may have to look no further than the urban jungle of Philadelphia.

Toddes, an animal sciences graduate from Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, is currently the director of the animal nutrition program at the Philadelphia Zoo.

"I formulate diets for the animals at the zoo and ensure that we have the correct food available," said Toddes. "I also check the nutritional composition of animals' diets, watch for pathogens in meats so that animals don't get sick, and manage a facility where the animals' food is checked for quality."

Toddes finds her job enjoyable because each new day offers surprises.

"Daily expectations are ever-changing," she said. "We are constantly getting animals for which we create new diets, while refining the diets of other exotic species already on the premises. We typically feed more than 1,300 animals each day."

"My job gives me the opportunity to work with some unique animals," Toddes continued. "My career has taken me to Africa, Iceland and many of our national parks. That's really the best part of my job -- there is always something new, even here in Philadelphia."

In choosing the right ingredients for the specific animals, Toddes finds that they sometimes can be picky eaters. "You may find a diet that works for one gorilla, but another gorilla may not be interested in that exact same diet. Not only do you have to make diets for certain species, but you also have to adjust the diet to the likes and dislikes of individual animals."

Preparing meals for all mammals large and small, Toddes even put her nutrition know-how to the test on the Food Network.

"Just this summer, the zoo hosted a Food Network episode of 'Dinner Impossible' and asked me to participate as a sous-chef," Toddes said. "I never thought I'd prepare dinner for 500 service men, women and their families using foods that are also used in the diets of animals while working at the zoo!"

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Last Updated November 18, 2010