Kitchen Tales: Meet the chef who prepares meals for hundreds of critters at the Beardsley Zoo

Much like human children, the bears and monkeys at the Beardsley Zoo are finicky eaters. “Primates are famous for that,” says Don Goff, the Bridgeport zoo’s deputy director responsible for animal care and nutrition. “They’re big on fruits that are sweet when what they really need to eat are their vegetables,” he says. “Bears will also devour the fruit but turn their nose up at vegetables. We do what we can to get them to eat what’s good for them.”

Providing a balanced diet for the zoo’s 300 animals requires the full attention of the facility’s zookeepers, who gather in the animal commissary every day to chop fruit and vegetables for the parrots and turtles, thaw dead mice for the owls, and gather crickets for the reptiles. The commissary, which opened in 2017, resembles a restaurant kitchen, with refrigerators and freezers lining a wall, shiny stainless steel tables and sinks for food prep, bins filled with dry foods, and recipes for each animal’s diet written on a whiteboard on the wall.

As the chef overseeing what amounts to a gourmet restaurant, Goff tries to mimic the diets that the zoo’s animals would consume in the wild. “When we first started in business, we didn’t have a lot of nutrition information for exotic animals, so we extrapolated from what we knew of horse or cattle diets,” he says. “But over time we developed diets that are specific to each animal.”

Goff spends about $150,000 each year on food for his charges. The grocery bill for just one tiger can top more than $3,000 annually. He works with numerous vendors around the country, including several Connecticut produce vendors, to acquire the highest quality food possible. Deliveries arrive several times each week to ensure freshness.

“We try to vary their diets because their diets vary in the wild,” Goff says. “Small primates might get sweet potatoes twice a week and apples once a week. We vary the protein source for the carnivores. When animals are young, if you feed them the same thing all the time, you encounter resistance if you need to switch their diet for health reasons.”

A varied diet can also have an effect on an animal’s reproduction. In the wild, maned wolves typically eat more protein just before the breeding season, so when Goff followed suit with the zoo’s wolves, it helped to promote breeding and the survivability of their pups.

For some animals, portion control can be a problem, so foods are weighed and measured carefully to ensure that the animals don’t become overweight. “We have a numerical scale to score their body size so we know if an animal needs more or less food,” Goff says. “We also look at the time of year. If they’re heavier going into the winter, that’s usually fine, but come summertime we may not need to feed them as much.”

Goff brings a lifetime of experience to his job as the zoo chef. He began his career as a zookeeper for the elephants and rhinos at Kings Dominion Park in Virginia, eventually rising to oversee the entire collection of animals, including 30 lions and nine tigers. He then became the curator of mammals at the Jacksonville Zoo in Florida before moving to Connecticut.

“It’s an adventure every day,” he says. “I’ve done some really neat things, and I’m happy that I’ve been able to contribute to the greater good of these animals.”

What's in the fridge?

A snapshot of the inventory in the Beardsley Zoo animal commissary:

1,500 frozen mice and rats

1,200 crickets

200 pounds of fish

500 pounds of beef bones

50 pounds of fresh fruit

28 pounds of lettuce and kale

15 colonies of fruit flies

10 pounds of earthworms

1 ton of carnivore diet

1 ton of feline diet

250 pounds of herbivore pellets

250 pounds of primate biscuits

Note: The last four items are prepared foods consisting of a blend of natural ingredients and vitamins and supplements to meet the needs of particular animals. The carnivore and feline diets, for instance, are red meats ground together with a proprietary blend of vitamins. The primate biscuits are primarily corn and soybeans with vitamins and supplements.

This article originally appeared in Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale here. Sign up for the newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. On Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.