Career Spotlight: Zoo nutritionist

Dr. Deb Schmidt. Photo from the St. Louis ZooDr. Debra Schmidt is a zoo nutritionist at the Saint Louis Zoo in Missouri. Schmidt has been fascinated by exotic animals for years, and today she formulates diets for about 18,000 animals at the zoo.

“If an animal is pregnant, overweight or lactating, I help,” Schmidt said in a recent interview. “Each animal is interesting because each has different needs and ways of eating.”   

There is a lot of research on nutrition for species, like cows and pigs—but exotic zoo animals can be a mystery. Schmidt said it can be a challenge to formulate diets for some reptiles and insect-eating birds.

“We don’t know as much about them,” said Schmidt.

But Schmidt is up for the challenge. Schmidt knew she wanted to work with animals at an early age. She grew up around her dad’s herd of cattle, and she started working at a dog kennel at age 13. Schmidt studied chemistry and biology in school and went on to get a master’s degree in reproductive physiology at Louisiana State University.

It was during her master’s program that Schmidt started working with armadillos. The scientists studying leprosy in armadillos couldn’t get them to breed in captivity, so Schmidt and her fellow students tackled the project.

“We were trying to find a way to breed them in captivity,” Schmidt said. “It was fun because we got to collect our own animals.”

Picture that: a team of grad students trekking around Louisiana, on the look-out for
clunky-shelled, long-nosed, alien-looking armadillos. That would be an adventure for any animal-lover.

After getting her master’s, Schmidt worked for Purina for five years, and she ended up going back to school to get a PhD in animal nutrition. Again, Schmidt focused on exotic animals, and she wrote her thesis on primate nutrition. After earning her PhD, she continued working with exotic animals at a job with the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois, and later the San Diego Zoo.

Schmidt calls her work at the Saint Louis Zoo her “dream job.”

“I’ve always just loved animals, and the zoo has very unusual animals,” said Schmidt.

Her advice for future zoo scientists?

“Volunteer any way you can with any kind of animal,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt’s research also touches on issues important to traditional livestock animal science. Schmidt is currently working on a grant to study an inflammatory disease called rumenitis that can damage the digestive system in cattle. Of course, Schmidt is focusing on how rumenitis affects more exotic species, like antelope or okapi.

Schmidt said that there are actually only 18 zoo nutritionists in the United States. It’s a small group, but a vital one. Schmidt and her fellow zoo nutritionists currently work as advisors for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ “Species Survival Plan” that guides zoos in keeping animals healthy and aiding their conservation. So far, Schmidt has contributed information on nutrition for species like gorillas, orangutans and wild dogs.

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