By Rebeka Pécsi, zookeeper, Jászberény Zoo, Hungary
Keeping giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) was never an easy task. These magnificent beings were always unique additions to any collection. But even now, zoos think twice whether to keep an anteater, for there are many special needs that have to be fulfilled. The biggest amongst them is their diet.
In the past, feeding anteaters was only about giving them insectivore food, because they eat termites and ants in the wild. That is true, but later discoveries have shown that they often eat fallen fruits from the ground and take soil with the insects. With that in mind, some changes had to be made, because captive animals only lived for a short period of time (2 to 5 years).
Dortmund Zoo (Germany) was the most successful keeper and breeder at the dawn of anteater keeping, so it is a fine example for other zoos. There are no standard feeding tables for anteaters, however the Dortmund recommendation is a well-detailed and proven list that is worth looking at. They give their anteaters beef heart, apples, bananas, pears, tomatoes, cottage cheese, boiled eggs, Gammarus, ground dog food, ground oatmeal, sifted peat and honey.
Peat is a real opinion divider between zoos. Zoo Dortmund adds 10 grams of it to the other ingredients of the food-mix when the animal stays outside all day, and 20 grams when it stays inside for some reason.
Giving this amount of peat makes faeces quite watery hence making it harder to clean up. With a greater amount (50g), faeces could become very solid and easy to clean. Which is more healthy is yet unknown and has to be studied. We contacted Ilona Schappert (Dortmund Zoo), EEP (European Endangered species Programme) coordinator of the giant anteater, about the matter. She says their animals would not eat the food with that much peat in it. Ilona studied anteaters in the wild so we asked about faeces of wild animals. It is very hard to find, and only people who work in South-America have seen such a thing. It is interesting that the faeces of giant anteaters are very dry, so we should „create” a similar consistence through the food.
Fruits can vary too. Many zoos for example skip tomatoes and give kiwis instead and there are zoos that do not have a consistent mix, they give seasonal fruits. Ilona’s opinion is to give them a fix diet, because anteaters are very conservative when it comes to food and otherwise they might stop eating.
Gammarus is a great addition to the mix, because its particles help digestion to work as it does in wild animals, when they eat insects.
In American zoos, anteaters are given some fruits, but mostly leaf-eater pellets with a little cat food. The taurin content of cat food protects against heart problems and the pellets are given only for their cellulose content to replace chitin.
There is however an easier way to feed your anteater. This food is called Termant, and is available from MAZURI Exotic Animal Nutrition. This powder is a fast and controllable meal that only needs to be mixed with some water. And even more, one can give it to the animal dry, and the anteater can learn how to eat it. (Some say that giant anteaters are silly, but if you have a chance to work with one in your life, you realize that that is not true.)
This powder might taste like sand and salt for a human, but who knows what the anteaters have to say about it. It contains some protein, lysine, vitamins A, D, E, K and many more ingredients, updated by the latest discoveries.
Some zoos say it is the perfect diet and others hate it all. Many animals would not eat a bit of it and others eat it dry like a pig. Every person involved has a different opinion on this topic.
Both feeding method has its advantages. Giving Termant is easy and simple, the previously described food-mix is time-consuming and harder to make, but the animals like it better. Anteaters in Dortmund Zoo wouldn’t eat Termant, says Ilona, but giving Termant AND the mix could work, if the animal is willing to eat the powder. One can check this anytime by offering Termant and the mix simultaneously. There’s only a small chance that the anteater will choose the powder over the mix.
I had one last question for Ilona, and it was about changes in the mix. They are testing new ingredients at the moment and they „have a good feeling about it”.
In conclusion: choose the feeding method that suits your animals best, because each and every anteater is different. Seek and study the newest discoveries and visit other zoos to meet their experiences and methods.
In that way, you end up having healthy, long-living animals and... the mix that your animals prefer to any yoghurt money can buy.
Special thanks to:
Ilona Schappert (Deputy director of Dortmund Zoo; EEP Coordinator and International Studbook Keeper (ISB) of Giant anteater)