Belly of the Beast

The food critic meets his match in a hippo named Burt.

"Here. You want to try something? Try this," says James Purcell as he crosses behind the pickup truck parked in the Denver Zoo commissary garage. It's 8 a.m., almost time for Purcell to make his first round of deliveries. The bed is filled to the sidewalls with fifty-pound bags of whole grains; clear plastic bins full of coarse-chopped apples, bananas and other fresh fruit; cases of fresh spinach; carrots; a shovel; and a replacement wheel for someone's wheelbarrow. Purcell leans over the side, shifts an armload of kale greens and digs his hand down into a bucket.

"This stuff is pretty good," he says, coming up with a fistful of something resembling the long, spaghetti-thick pellets used to feed Buster, the prize hamster of my third-grade class. He empties a few pieces into my hand and, because he's a good sport, knocks back some himself, chewing happily. I am a little more cautious, remembering that the last time I played the hey-you-wanna-eat-something-weird game, I ended up eating roasted field mice.

This isn't quite as shocking. The pellets are soft, rough textured, a little fruity -- like a health nut's breakfast cereal after soaking an hour in warm banana milk. I taste, chew, swallow and then -- only then -- ask what I'd just eaten. "It's bat chow," Purcell says. "I hope you don't mind -- it's got a little dog food in it."

Of course not. Why would I mind? Especially considering the mealworms, fish gel, whole rats and frozen cow's blood I'd just seen touring through three walk-ins and a couple of dry pantries. Besides, my breakfast was two tall cups of 7-Eleven coffee and the first Sausage McMuffin I've had in probably five years. The bat chow -- made with fresh apples, oranges, raisins, cherry gelatin, dog food, molasses, dry milk and ground-up monkey biscuits -- is probably a helluva lot healthier.

"Funny thing is," Purcell adds, "the only difference between it going in one end and coming out the other is the color."

Yeah. Hilarious.

When I first pictured my trip to the commissary, I had envisioned something more like "sexy young restaurant critic in bush hat and best Puerto Rican party shirt rides a monkey off into sunset." The only trouble is, the restaurant critic isn't all that young, his belly hangs out of his favorite party shirt, and only Mrs. Critic finds him all that sexy. Plus, they don't let you ride the monkeys, no matter how nicely you ask. Only trained primate handlers get to play with the great apes because, apparently, they're very large, very strong and very grabby, and no one (least of all me) wants to see a headline in Penny Parker's column that reads "Dumb-Ass Restaurant Critic Violently Sodomized by Orangutan."

Fair enough. Leave that kind of stuff to Jeff Corwin and that crazy Crocodile Hunter guy. The odds are far less likely that I'll get both of my arms chewed off by an enraged ocelot while hanging with the zoo chefs and commissary administrator James Zajicek.

Years ago, the critters were fed whatever their keepers could get their hands on: day-old bread, donated food, even roadkill. But that was back in the dark ages. "Now the animals are too endangered," Zajicek says. "We have to be good to them."

And Zajicek and his crew are. Case upon case of romaine lettuce, kale, spinach and mustard greens line the shelves. Frozen mice, tiger shrimp, whole rabbits, whole chickens, brand-name baby food (for the geckos), two-day-old chicks (for the snakes and condors), evaporated cow's milk and goat's milk and powdered camel's milk, bovine blood (for the vampire bats) -- all of these things have their place. In dry storage, bins of whole grains, cereals and popcorn are all neatly in a line.

I ask who eats the chickens. "The wolves," Zajicek answers. "They prefer them with feathers. And with the gizzards." The popcorn? That's something special for the primates. "Low in calories, zero sugar, no salt. We give it to them as a treat." And some of them will get to eat it while watching TV. Sally the orangutan likes Talking Heads videos. Robin prefers Spice World -- the Spice Girls movie -- disproving the contention that the film was so bad not even apes could watch it all the way through.

In the meat locker are frozen horse knuckles and tails for the big cats and other carnivores. There is even Nebraska beef -- high-grade stuff that rich folk from the Hamptons pay top dollar for (the ads for Omaha Steaks are all over the back pages of the New Yorker) -- so the animals here are doing pretty well. As are the cheeseburger-eating humans outside the cages: The snack shop feeds them the same meat, minus a powdered-charcoal additive.

Good beef is one thing, but the commissary pays 95 bucks a pound for Roxanthin (a bird-food supplement) and $12 a pound for special hummingbird food. They'll run through 367,000 pounds of grain and dry goods in a year to feed the zoo's 4,000 animals, as well as 43 tons of fish and seafood and more than 150,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables. And the staff is picky.

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