Zoos hope to help animals lose weight

March 18, 2008 4:31:16 PM PDT
At zoos across the country, animals are packing on the pounds. Now they have a novel solution: weight-watchers for animals. You've heard about the proverbial "800-pound gorilla." Well, out at the Brookfield Zoo, it's time to put that gorilla on a diet, and the polar bears, and the dolphins.

Exactly who is going to tell this gorilla that her belly is full? Or inform Flipper that he's had enough fish, no matter how many tricks he does? That job belongs to Jennifer Watts, the nutritionist at the Brookfield Zoo.

"We work very tightly with our veterinary staff to make sure that our mammals are in good health," she said.

Her task is daunting. There are walls full of dietary charts and still some animals keep on packing on the pounds.

Just like humans, zoo animals snack too much. After all, treats are their rewards. So Watts has to decide to tighten their belts, the same way that millions of humans have, with the Weight Watchers point system.

Gorillas love fruit juice. But it's high in sugar, so each of those orange juice cubes will cost our friendly gorilla two points. Just like a cup of O.J. would cost us two points on Weight Watchers.

The polar bears often eat frozen Crystal Lite. There are no calories there, but their favorite indulgence is granola bars. Each one will cost them a point. For us, they're three points, but the bears are bigger.

This point system is designed to help zookeepers keep track of the number of treats each animal is given a week. Too many points mans no more snacks.

"There is increased risk for cardiovascular disease or diabetes if they get overweight," said Watts.

More than 40 percent of adult gorillas in captivity die from cardiac problems. Animals and zoos don't always get the exercise that their friends out in the wild do, and those calories can add up, as do the points.

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