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Belly of the Beast

"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.

"When a case of vegetables comes into a restaurant and a couple of them are bad, the restaurant will just return the bad ones," Eric Cronk explains. "But we'll return the whole case and demand another one. Now some of them pick through cases looking for the best stuff for us."

Zajicek spent forty grand last year on fruits and vegetables, sixty thousand on grains and dry goods, $6,600 on salt, and sixteen grand on 2.1 million mealworms and crickets. His total food budget this year was $436,000, and all that critter feed had to be brought in, stowed away, then prepared by his staff.

In the center of the room are back-to-back stainless-steel prep tables -- the heart of any galley. There is plenty of counter space, a double-sided dish sink, a knife rack on the wall with everyone's personal-favorite chef's knives, parers, peelers and sharpening steel hung within easy reach. Sure, the commissary doesn't have a gleaming line of Jade ranges (just an electric four-burner), and there is only one oven. But not a lot of actual cooking goes on in this kitchen. The big kitties prefer their horse knuckles raw, thank you very much, and your average squirrel monkey doesn't much care for veggie mix à l'orange. Just make it fresh and throw in a few peanuts for fun.

Still, that doesn't mean these kitchen guys have it easy. First, they're cooking for 4,000. Second, working in this kitchen is a lot like doing time in the world's most diverse all-you-can-eat buffet -- except that the animals are discriminating. The gorillas don't want what the marmosets are having, the marmosets certainly have no interest in the sea lions' grub, and this kitchen even has to worry about feeding the crickets (who get cricket meal) so that they'll stay fat and happy until they get fed to the lizards.

"I spent twelve years in restaurants, in management," says Juan Lucero, who is weighing, measuring, cutting, chopping and mixing while Cronk and Purcell make deliveries. "And it's all the same here. Same produce, same ordering, same kind of inventory."

The difference is what happens to the food once they're done with it, and that's how I meet Burt, an absolutely huge, 45-year-old arthritic hippopotamus -- and probably the only animal my own personal keeper for the day (zoo PR director Ana Bowie) feels safe having me get close to.

All that stuff about riding monkeys is suddenly a lot less funny as Burt rises up out of the dark water of his pool like some terrible Saturday-matinee movie monster. He shoulders aside some of his smaller companions, and I am standing close enough to feel his breath. Close enough for his keeper to shovel a big scoop full of mixed grains and fruit (laced with some arthritis medicine) straight into his open mouth without reaching too far. Burt's mouth is massive -- big enough to swallow a restaurant critic in two bites, easy -- with teeth the size of my balled fist, big, wet eyes, and bristling whiskers that made him look like the kind of creature that should live forever in a place where humans can't go. Sure, I've seen hippos before, but mostly on TV. This is something entirely different. Something special. As the keeper pours Burt's breakfast straight into his waiting mouth, I know exactly why Kajicek's crew takes such care in the preparation of every single dish: because feeding animals to people isn't the only thing a kitchen is good for.

And because, no matter what you do, no one wants to piss off a critic as big as Burt.


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