Blog: Carlita the Croc

The Hardest Working Nutritionist in Town

Nutritionist Jennifer Watts

I have my own nutritionist. Well, ok…I guess I share her with all the other animals at the zoo, but still, I have my own nutritionist. Why am I telling you this? Because March 14 is National Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Day and even I, as a crocodile, benefit from having a nutritionist. So today, I want to give a shout out to Dr. Jennifer Watts, Director of Nutrition at Brookfield Zoo.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, "Registered dietitian nutritionists are committed to improving the health of their patients, clients and communities through food and nutrition," Although Dr. Jenn is a different kind of nutritionist whose clients and communities are composed of animals, the same philosophy applies. Her work is the first step in keeping the animals at Brookfield Zoo healthy.

Now, Dr. Jenn isn’t a human nutritionist gone rogue. She studied animal sciences and earned her PhD in animal nutrition. Most animal nutritionists work in the agricultural industry. But a small handful, around 20, work in zoos. Brookfield Zoo was one of the first zoos to have a full-fledged nutrition department, which was well established, when Dr. Jenn joined the team. It is her job to design each animal’s daily meal plan, which numbers in the thousands, and make recommendations for changes depending on how each individual is doing day to day.

Nutritionist Jennifer Watts with intern

What does it mean to design an animal’s daily meal plan? Well, Dr. Jenn takes a lot of factors into account. First, she has to know what type of diet a species of animal requires – herbivore, carnivore, insectivore, omnivore, etc. This is important because an animal’s diet affects its digestive system, and vice versa, so Dr. Jenn needs to know what type of food to feed an animal. Next, she looks into how many calories an animal needs to eat in order to remain healthy and maintain a normal activity level, even as it grows, nurses, hibernates, molts, or ages.

Dr. Jenn also needs to take into account metabolism. Keep in mind, some animals typically eat daily, like primates. Other animals, like the stunning Orinoco crocodile, have slower metabolisms and may eat every few days or maybe every few weeks! With this information, Dr. Jenn determines exactly how each individual will get their calories. She decides what combination of high and low calorie foods to give throughout the day or week.  Dr. Jenn monitors animal care staff records daily and does body condition checks to see if there are any changes in animal behaviors, weights, or heath status that warrant a tweak in diet. And with that, Dr. Jenn creates the ideal meal plan for every single animal at Brookfield Zoo.

Nutritionist Jennifer Watts

Following me so far? Sounds straightforward enough, right?

Not so fast. Dr. Jenn, as an animal nutritionist, faces a challenge that many human nutritionists face: client compliance. Yes, animals have preferences, too. And even though Dr. Jenn can create the perfect meal, whether or not the animal wants to eat it is another story. So Dr. Jenn, in all her benevolence, accommodates. She will search high and low to find that favorite food item, make sure it is appropriate for a given animal, and fit it into the allotted meal plan.

This is why we honor Dr. Jenn today.


Nutritionist Jennifer Watts

Now you may think this is the end of Dr. Jenn’s story. It’s hard to imagine her having the time to accomplish much else besides manage the diets of every single animal at the zoo. But, there is, in fact, much more to her role as Director of Nutrition at Brookfield Zoo. That is another blog for another time.

Want to see the process of making the animal’s daily meals? Check out Foodie Fridays (see below) on Brookfield Zoo’s YouTube channel. Tweet me @CandidCroc and let me know what you think!


Posted: 3/12/2018 11:58:35 AM by Steve Pine

Carlita the Croc

I'm Carlita the Croc, here to deliver my candid views on various topics, articles, news, and stories in conservation. For the latest news follow me on Twitter, for striking photos follow me on Instagram.


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