Cranbeary, one of Denver Zoo's former polar bears, is photographed in her exhibit on July 27, 2016. She was moved to a zoo in Alaska in October 2018. (Courtesy of Denver Zoo)

By David Zalubowski, The Associated Press

Katrina Eschweiler has 3,000 hungry diners to satisfy every day of the year, an enviable client base for any eatery in these turbulent times. But they’re not your usual clientele.

They’re the year-round inhabitants of the Denver Zoo, and feeding more than 450 species is a painstaking, serious business. The coronavirus has made the task more daunting.

The zoo was closed nearly three months early in the pandemic, then imposed restrictions on crowd sizes since reopening to the public June 12. That has cut into profits and led the zoo to join other zoos around the country in turning to supporters asking for donations to cover the nearly $1 million annual food budget for the facility’s denizens.

The hay and vegetables for Groucho, a 12,000-pound Asian elephant, costs $76,000 a year.

“It costs us about $100,000 per day to operate the zoo, and $1 million per month on animal care alone. Although we’re open and welcoming guests to the zoo each day, we’re still facing a significant deficit,” said Bert Vescolani, president and CEO.

Over a year, the nutrition team will handle 400 tons of food, everything from frozen mice for raptors to fish from Newfoundland for the sea lions. Every day, the nutrition team members formulate, prepare and deliver hundreds of pounds of hay, meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, grain and other items to the animals, said Brian Aucone, the zoo’s senior vice president for animal sciences.

And like the trendiest of restaurants, the Denver Zoo feeds its charges as much locally sourced food as possible. Almost all of the meat for the carnivores comes from local producers, which employees say helps reduce the zoo’s carbon footprint and the need to store larger quantities.

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