Not exactly the kinds of problems you read about in the paper every day, but they're Shana Lavin's bread and butter - not that she would feed that to any of the animals at Lincoln Park Zoo, where she is the nutrition manager.
A more complex and challenging job than the one this young Jewish woman has held for the past three years would be hard to imagine.
Lavin, who actually has a "doctor" in front of her name (she holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology) is responsible for the diets of the more than 200 species that populate the renowned zoo in Chicago's Lincoln Park.
With a staff of three, plus three more interns and volunteers, she
oversees a $500,000-a-year animal nutrition and commissary operation, formulates diets for a diverse collection of mammals, reptiles and birds, takes care of budgetary matters, develops diets for new animals entering the zoo, periodically checks out each animal's weight and health status and is available to confer with the zoo's veterinarians whenever a health problem comes up that might be diet related.
She also does research on animal nutrition issues in a field where knowledge is growing day by day.
boss says she
has already become a leader in the field.
love of animals was evident from an early age, but at first pointed her
in a different career direction, the trim, energetic Lavin
said recently in an interview in her
zoo office, in an administration building tucked away behind the public exhibits.
spends long hours here on the computer, but also walks the grounds, where she
might check to see if a giraffe's food is placed at the right height or whether a fussy big cat has eaten her
breakfast, or watch with delight as a mother stork feeds her
grew up in Miami, where her
family kept kosher and belonged to a Conservative synagogue.
In high school, she worked in a vet's office.
"I realized I really liked animals," she
It was 2007 and Lavin had just finished her doctorate and was applying for government and academic positions when she came to Chicago for a friend's wedding.
"We were walking around the (Lincoln Park) zoo, and I saw a sign for conservation science," she
does little of the actual feeding, leaving that to the keepers and the food preparation and delivery to her
"I'm the only nutritionist here and I'm on the computer a lot of the time, formulating diets, adjusting diets based on the seasons and on behaviors," she
works closely with the veterinary staff, managers and curators; whenever an animal isn't feeling well or is showing some uncharacteristic behavior, they'll consult with her
to see if the problem could be nutritional.
Dr. Kathryn Gamble, the zoo's director of veterinary services, says Lavin "has really been instrumental in stabilizing the nutrition program for the zoo.
"has become quite a leader in the industry," Gamble says, and "has made quite a difference in the program and the department.
I like knowing that (the nutritional) part is taken care of."
Veterinarians often have a limited knowledge of animal nutrition, she
says, so "to get a good balance, you need a very well-trained nutritionist who wants to work with vets.
Gamble also praises Lavin
for mentoring students and interns.
shows a really strong commitment to the future of the profession," she
is leading Lincoln Park Zoo
in a way that helps the discipline grow, and she
is very collegial and relationship-building.
has a good relationship with our partners at other institutions."
Sometimes, though, all the research in the world doesn't help for reasons that all parents, at least, are familiar with.
"You can develop a perfect diet on paper, but the animal has to actually eat it, and not just pick out parts of it," Lavin
It turns out many zoo animals have something in common with the kids who come to gawk at them, nutritionally speaking.
"They'll pick out the junkier parts of the diet and leave what's good for them, and we have to make sure they're not able to do that and have an unbalanced diet based on what they're selecting," she
There are several answers, Lavin
"They're probably our most expensive animal," Lavin
says, although, unlike giant pandas, which subsist entirely on bamboo, the smaller species is more omnivorous.
One member of the species, Toby, "was so picky when he
first came here it was hard to get him on the diet we wanted him to eat," Lavin
seemed fixated on red foods like plums and grapes.
"So we used red foods to transition him" to a more balanced diet, she
Toby now lives at the Houston zoo - not banished because of his
finicky eating habits, but simply part of the constant turnover among zoos across the country.
The reason, Lavin
explains, is "to make sure diversity is not going down and to avoid inbreeding as much as possible.
When an animal arrives at Lincoln Park
from another zoo, it goes into quarantine for 30 days, and Lavin
often has to work to slowly transition it onto the diet she
"It doesn't always happen," she
"Especially with the cats.
We have some cats that never switch from the diet they're on.
They just refuse.
We'll have to compromise, like, OK, give them something else.
Big cats, apparently, can be every bit as choosy as their domestic cousins.
With other zoo animals, the challenge is "they don't have to work as hard for their food as they would in the wild," Lavin says.
There, "maybe they wouldn't get food for a couple of days or they wouldn't get the top-notch quality food we are able to get to them.
But not having to chase down their dinner also means that animals can become overweight, Lavin
"Just handing an animal a slab of meat, steak, that wouldn't be a good diet," Lavin
"We go through a lot of meat but we get this food that's almost like canned cat food, with added vitamins and minerals.
Many of the zoo's carnivores also enjoy a "bone day," when they receive giant rib or neck bones to aid in dental health and to provide them with calcium.
Getting enough calcium is a problem with amphibians too, Lavin
Many eat insects, which are low in calcium, so Lavin
has formulated a calcium-rich diet for the insects, which will then be ingested by the amphibians.
In addition, animals that rely on fish must take a vitamin supplement, as fish are deficient in several vitamins, Lavin
One fish-eating species is a particular favorite of hers.
"I really like the Asian small-clawed otters," she
The small otters, about the size of cats, "are very cute.
They have fun little personalities.
My favorite is one named Wasabi."
Zoo animal nutrition has made great strides over the past few decades, Lavin
"There are things we might not have known 20 years ago," she
In many cases, Lavin
is the one being asked.
own impressive resume lists a number of publications in professional journals, some written with colleagues, with such titles as "Prevalence of tetracycline resistance in zoo animal foods" and "Influence of nutrition on fitness and reproduction in male black-footed ferrets.
is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois
, presents lectures and seminars and mentors students and interns in the field of wildlife biology.
One problem Lavin deals with that shouldn't surprise anybody is obesity.
Certain species, like primates, are predisposed to it, she
says, and like us, "if they don't have a reason to move around, they're not going to move around, and like us, they'll choose the crappy food that tastes good."
To try and keep all the zoo creatures at their model best, Lavin
reviews each animal's diet at least once a year.
In addition, she
says, "I keep my eye on who's looking a little chunky, who's looking a little underweight and adjust the diet."
has also clamped down on the treats.
Keepers who roam the grounds sometimes alert Lavin
when something happens.
"I have a radio on me all day and I'll hear, 'Somebody threw a bag of Ritz crackers in the meerkat exhibit,'" she
"We all want our animals to be safe and a lot of our guests keep an eye out too and will report things like that.
It doesn't happen too much, thankfully, because I think the people who come here respect what we are trying to do."
Even more of a risk comes from visitors who throw non-food items into exhibits, Lavin
Animals have been known to completely or partially consume plastic bags.
"We'll have to watch for it to come out the other end, and make sure the animal is still functioning," she
And throwing coins into the seal tank can be dangerous as well, not because the animals swallow them but because the metal can leech into the water.
absorption in her