Nutrition and Our Zoo Elephants

Elephants are big vegetarians. In the wild, they eat a wide variety of plants, from savannah grasses, shrubs, and herbs, to woody trees, bark, and fruits. Their diet depends on what’s available in their habitat in a given season.

Using our knowledge of wild elephants, we provide our Asian elephants at the Saint Louis Zoo with a well-balanced diet. And we use other sources of nutrition information, as well. For instance, the digestive tract of elephants is most similar to domestic horses, so nutrient requirements for feeding elephants are based partly on the horse as a model.

Our carefully-planned elephant menu provides a well-balanced diet for these giant herbivores. And when our elephants have special nutritional needs (like our pregnant cows), we plan special diets to make sure they get all the nutrients they need to stay healthy.

What’s on the Menu?

Ever wonder what one of our elephants eats in a typical day? Check out this sample daily menu for a typical adult elephant:

  • Hay, and lots of it – Each of our elephants chomps up to 100 pounds of hay every day! It’s their main course, making up about 50% to 75% of the daily diet. Locally-grown grass-based hay duplicates the nutrients found in savannah grasses.

  • Pellets – A special supplement provides necessary vitamins and minerals to balance out the diet. Each elephant eats about 10 pounds of pellets per day.

  • Fruits and vegetables – These foods don’t add much nutritional value, but they provide special treats during training and also serve as enrichment foods (see Taking Care of our Elephants and Enriching our Elephants). Every day, each animal eats about 15 pounds of produce. Common foods include carrots, apples, and bananas; less-common ones are melons, pineapples, pears, celery, parsley, lettuce, cabbage, kale, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, and beets. Now that’s variety!

  • Browse – Our elephants snack on trees and shrubs when they’re available. These plants duplicate the fiber and other nutrients found in the woody trees and bark eaten by wild elephants.

That’s a lot of food! These giant herbivores need to eat a lot because they digest so little of the food they eat (only about 30% to 60%, which is true of both wild and zoo elephants). That means they need to eat large quantities of food to gain all of the necessary nutrients.

Here’s an interesting fact: elephants in the wild seek out dietary supplements (especially salt) by eating nutrient-rich soil. At the Zoo, we provide extra salt for our elephants to consume as needed. (In fact, we provide extra mineral salt for all of our herbivores, since most of the plants they consume are low in sodium.)

Special Diets

Sometimes elephants have special dietary needs. A growing elephant requires more protein, pound-for-pound, than a fully-grown adult, so we give our young elephants relatively more grasses, browse, and hay (their main source of protein).

These days, we’re carefully watching the diets of our pregnant cows. After all, these females have a huge job: 22 months of pregnancy, followed by delivery of a really big baby (from 250 to 350 pounds)!

Keeping our pregnant cows in top physical form has a big pay-off: cows in good shape have shorter labors and easier deliveries.