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15 Minutes -- Zoo menu includes raw meat and gophers

By Edie Grossfield

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

On a morning last week at Oxbow Park’s Zollman Zoo in Byron, animal caretaker Kelli Gabrielson was doing her normal work, cutting up raw deer meat and throwing frozen gophers in a bucket. She was getting ready to make the feeding rounds for the zoo’s carnivores.

It’s not a job for someone with a weak stomach.

Gabrielson, an Austin native, graduated last year from Iowa State University with a degree in biology. She focused her studies on animal behavior. She’d love to stay at the Zollman Zoo, where she was an intern last fall. However, the job is temporary, until the regular staff person gets back from a three-month leave. Gabrielson hopes to secure a permanent position at a zoo, her top choices being either the Zollman or the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley.

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So, we’re standing in the food preparation building here at the Zollman. Could you explain the ax hanging on the wall behind you?

Yes, sometimes we use that. All of the food is frozen, and we defrost it. But sometimes it’s still tough to get through with a knife. So, if the ax is necessary, we have it there just in case.

What are some of the food items you have for the animals here?

We have frozen fish for the otters, which is one of the things we chop with the ax sometimes. We have raw deer meat for the carnivores, like the wolf and cougar. We’ll also give the cougar some gophers. They’re just whole dead animals that we freeze. We thaw them usually the night before.

Where do you get the dead gophers?

There are a few local trappers who we work with. Ninety-five percent of the food for the animals, including the meat, is donated to the park. Or, if someone’s freezer goes down and the meat is spoiled for human consumption, the animals can still eat it.

I see you’re cutting up the raw venison for the carnivores. In the wild, they’d have to work a bit harder for that, huh?

Yeah, with skin and bones, and teeth and everything. This is very convenient for them. And, I have a coyote that doesn’t like to eat venison, so I have some raw beef for her. Captive animals can afford to be picky sometimes.

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As I’m watching you cut up the raw slabs of deer meat and throw dead gophers in a bucket, I can’t help wondering if you are a vegetarian.

No. My little sister is a vegetarian, and I keep asking her to come out and go around with me and do chores. And she doesn’t think she can handle the raw meat aspect.

And now that I’ve watched you make an incision in a gopher carcass and insert antibiotic capsules for the cougar (who has a sore on her tail), I have to ask if this job ever grosses you out?

Yeah, well, on my first day I was not used to this raw meat. I worked before at a different zoo where they just fed grain to the animals. That didn’t smell anything like this. It was a shock to come in here and have the dead gophers and things.

What do you like most about this job?

I like the variety of the animals that are here. At first, I was mostly just interested in mammals. But here, there are the raptor birds and the snakes and the salamanders, and I just love them all.

Know an interesting person willing to spend 15 minutes talking with a reporter in exchange for 15 minutes of fame? Call the Edie Grossfield at 285-7635.

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