When you visit the Zoo, it is very easy to identify a member of our staff. The Houston Zoo employees (and volunteers!) make ourselves as visible as possible so that guests can recognize us. This allows us to be accessible to our wonderful guests, and provide the best experience possible.
What you may not know is that behind the scenes, we have many employees and volunteers who work extremely hard to keep the Zoo operating at a high level. Recently, I was lucky enough to spend some time with Phyllis, who is the Commissary Supervisor here at the Houston Zoo.
Phyllis, we know your job title, but what do you actually DO?
I supervise the daily activities of the Zoo commissary. That involves overseeing ordering, storage, and preparation of animal feed and nutritional supplies.
There are a lot of animals here! How long does it take to prepare all that food?
Starting at 5 am, the first four hours are the busiest in the kitchen. We are working mostly with assorted fruits and vegetables, making our diets to the order of our specialized cookbooks.
How many other people help with all this work?
We have six total animal keepers, three of which are senior keepers. Each one works four days in the kitchen, and one day on the dock delivering animal food. The kitchen has three stations which are rotated on a daily basis so we all become familiarized with the ever changing diets. We have three different “cookbooks” that we follow. These change on a daily basis due to new acquisitions of animals, special health concerns, and animal pregnancies.
What is the most difficult part of all of this?
The most difficult part is probably juggling the constant changes. There is a lot of maintenance work to make sure the food is prepared correctly. After the food is prepared and ready, we also must schedule and deliver the right food to the right place at the right time.
What do you enjoy the most about your job?
I love the early hours. We work from 5:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. 365 days a year. Yep, 365. Even though the Zoo is closed on Christmas day, all of the animals need to be fed. Although I don’t get to participate in this much anymore, I used to love delivering food to all the animal sections. The experience of hearing the birds, elephants, lions, and other animals begin to wake up is just so exciting!
With every animal in the Zoo, it just seems like so much food! Do you have any fun facts?
I would bet most people don’t know that our three rhinos eat an average of 400 bales of hay a year. Due to last year’s drought, hay alone became quite an expense. The cost for only our rhinos last year was approximately $5,000.
What else can you tell me about the incredibly important work you do?
We have the same food safety as you would find in a restaurant. We also share the same worries about temperature, sanitation, keeping meat separate from veggies, etc. However, unlike restaurant preparation, we work with a wide variety of foods including live insects(crickets, meal worms) rodents, assorted types of fish, produce, grain, and hays. Our Zoo commissary is state of the art and amazing to see in action!
A big THANKS to Phyllis for letting me interview her. Stay tuned for more interviews with our great staff!