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 Mike Maslanka
Mike Maslanka (Jessie Cohen, National Zoo)

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John Kelly and Mike Maslanka
Washington Post Metro Columnist and Senior Nutritionist, National Zooi
Friday, August 28, 2009; 12:00 PM

Post Metro columnist John Kelly was online Friday, Aug. 28, at Noon ET with National Zoo senior nutritionist Mike Maslanka to chat about feeding the pandas and all the other zoo animals.

Discussion Archives/Recent Columns

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John Kelly: Hello, people. Welcome to the last chat of August. Summer's almost over. Kids are back in school, or getting ready to return. Traffic is light but there's a pregnant foreboding that hangs over our roads. Soon we'll be back to our typical traffic jams. (Although, to be honest, the Beltway ALWAYS seems backed up these days.)

My guest today is Mike Maslanka, the National Zoo's senior animal nutritionist. I

wrote about Mike Wednesday

and his constant search for bamboo. It's not every day we have an animal nutritionist in our midst so if you've ever been curious about what goes in an animal's mouth, today's your chance.

My

Thursday column

was about a Vienna man who has covered his car in more than 400 anti-war (and, frankly, anti-Bush) bumper stickers. This is a guy who's not afraid to put his opinion where his Subaru Forester is.

Then there's

"William Taylor,"

the Virginia man who cheated on his wife. (Well, "a" Virginia man; I imagine there's more than just him.) How did he make it up to his betrothed? By standing at an intersection wearing a sign that read "I cheated. This is my punishment." Good idea? Bad idea? And what about the way he supposedly was caught: sending a photo of his, um, little Willie Taylor to his girlfriend. I mean, c'mon. I can't believe anyone wants to see that.

At least we know that Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are monogamous. Right?

Mike Maslanka: Thankfully, as a nutritionist, I can avoid this question like the plague. Actually, the giant pandas, like numerous other animals at the Zoo, are managed within a program that includes the whole US (and sometimes world) population as potential mating opportunities. When it comes to saving species, we look far beyond the confines of the National Zoo...

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John Kelly: Mike: A lot of people have asked me whether you still need bamboo. It sounds like there are a lot of folks who want the honor of feeding the giant pandas--and also want to get rid of their pernicious bamboo. Are you still in search of bamboo?

Mike Maslanka: We still get calls pretty frequently from folks interested in supplying us with bamboo, as well. Currently, while we SINCERELY appreciate the overwhelming support we have received from the community to our call for bamboo, we are not looking for any additional sites. As a point of reference, we received over 450 calls and e-mails within the first week of our request for bamboo and, to date, we probably have received 600 or so responses.

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John Kelly: Got that, people? You'll have to clear your own bamboo. Either that, or get your own pandas.

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Washington, D.C.: I remember that reading that Hsing Hsing towards the end of his life enjoyed Blueberry Muffins. Do any of them animals have unique tastes now?

BTW -- I still love Hsing Hsing, my wife (then girlfriend) would walk up to the zoo and visit him in the late 90s and he was just a happy old guy.

Mike Maslanka: Hsing Hising had reached a point where a blueberry muffin now and then was probably well deserved (and possibly a vector to get needed medications in - similar to how our folks used Tang to hide meds when we were kids). Except on very rare exception, we try to avoid items like these if we can. Sometimes, getting medications into an animal is more important than maintaining a balanced diet, but if we can maintain an appropriate diet, we try. We have elephants who get hot sauce and primates who receive quite a variety of items familiar to your pantry at home but, again, we try to include it as part of an appropriate diet.

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Columbia, Md.: Just in case you need some more getting fired stories, here is one from my college days in the 70s. I worked at a Hot Sam's Pretzel place at the local mall. We also sold popcorn and every night we would take turns having to clean the popcorn machine which had to cool down before we could clean it. One night, about a month after Christmas when the mall was dead, it was my night to clean it. At about 45 minutes before closing time we had 5 bags of popcorn left with no customers for over an hour and my work mate and I decided we would not make another batch. However, as people were leaving their jobs at the mall to go home, a couple came up to buy popcorn to take home, one bought 3 bags and one bought 2, so 5 minutes before closing time, we ran out of popcorn. I turned off the light to the machine. Then another woman came to get a bag and we were out. The next day, I got fired for running out of popcorn 5 minutes before closing time. My boss would not listen to my side of the story. I was devastated at the time, but now when I look back on it is was just so stupid. My boss lost a good employee.

John Kelly: I have a similar story, though it didn't end with me getting fired, although sometimes I wish it had. The summer after I graduated from high school (Rockville; go Rams!) I worked in Myrtle Beach at Polck Pete's, a Polish sausage joint that was a spin-off of Baltimore's famed Polock Johnny's. I typically worked alone, from 2 in the afternoon till 2 in the morning. Well, till 3. We closed at 2 and then I had to clean up: putting the food away, washing the utensils and scouring the grill with this pumice stone brick. Steam would boil off it as I poured water on the grill. The boss would show up around 3 to take the cash.

One night I got a huge rush right before closing. I was grilling onions and peppers and heating sausages like a madman! The line at the window was huge. I finally put up the "closed" sign. Just my luck my boss decided to come early that night.

When he saw the closed sign before 2 a.m. he chewed me out. Didn't fire me, though. I imagine he knew he'd have a hard time finding anyone else stupid enough to work selling Polish sausages until the wee hours.

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John Kelly: Mike: Do any of the animals have to get other animals to eat? I know that pet stores sell live crickets, goldfish and mice to feed to reptiles. Do you do the same at the zoo?

Mike Maslanka: We do. Carnivores, by definition, eat meat. Meat, by definition, is "other animals" (or fish, insects, etc). Sometimes, this is a meat mix (ground meat with vitamins and minerals mixed in as needed). Other times, this might be crickets, mealworms, earthworms, etc. We use a variety of rodents as well. We have numerous fish eaters (piscivores), and we have a variety of fish in our freezers to handle them. We do use goldfish, but that is more of a behavior enrichment component of the diet, rather than a huge nutrient contribution to it.

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Laurel, Md.: John, no disrespect to our guest, but how long is the Post going to keep up the blatant pandering to the cute animal niche audience?

John Kelly: As long as there are cute animals, we will pander to the audience that likes reading about them, looking at pictures of them, feeding them, dressing them up in children's clothes and parading them around the neighborhood in strollers or wagons.

Do you have something against cute animals or something?

John Kelly: What do the rest of you think? Does The Post do:

a. too many cute animal stories

b. not enough cute animal stories

c. just the right amount of cute animal stories

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McLean, Va.: Something must be done!

Yesterday, while in the CVS in McLean, I saw a display of Christmas ornaments. Christmas ornaments! In August!

John Kelly: I saw a weird thing this morning while I was walking in: a huge wreath--three feet in diameter, with a red bow--around a parking meter on L Street. I thought maybe it was connected to Kennedy's death--it looked like something from a funeral--but maybe it was an early Christmas decoration. Or, more likely, some drunk guy stuck it there as a joke.

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Washingtin, D.C.: How much does it cost per year to feed the large carnivores, and how are they fed?

Mike Maslanka: We don't have a specific number associated with feeding any of our animals, per se. Our carnivores are fed a commercial meat mix that contains vitamins and minerals in appropriate amounts to meet their nutrient needs. In addition, they will get bones (to promote dental health) and often get whole prey on certain days as variety (rodents, etc).

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Washington, D.C.: Hi John -- I've been away for a month so I do not know if the Post covered this. I went to the library upon my return and my card was invalid. It seems that the District decided to clean up its library patron records and deleted all records if the person did not CURRENTLY have something checked out! This on top of the DPR which never has the right time or dates of classes and recently overcharged me for CPR class that had been canceled due to lack of interest (but that did not stop them from letting me enroll, charging me, and not notifying me until I showed up for the class). I live in the District and love it, but wonder why the government is run by such screw-ups.

John Kelly: I thought you must be joking. Or mistaken. So I just called DCPL. You weren't joking. That's exactly what they did. If you have a DC library card and you didn't currently have anything checked out, your card was deleted and you have to be back and get a new one: new wallet card, new keychain card, new PIN. I don't have to time to chase this down now, but can you send me an e-mail (kellyj@washpost.com)? I want to look into this a little more.

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John Kelly: Mike: You guys are pretty scrupulous about measuring the intake of each animal, right? You very carefully weigh out the food they get every day. Does someone also measure the output? Are there some animals--the giant pandas spring to mind--that are so important that you want to make sure there aren't any blockages and therefore someone with a shovel, a scale and, hopefully, a pair of gloves is checking on their poop?

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Goshen, Md.: 1. What animals other than pandas eat bamboo?

2. What are Mr. Maslanka's thoughts about "Feed the Giraffe" opportunities that some zoos offer to visitors?

Thank you.

Mike Maslanka: We offer bamboo to the elephants, several denizens of the Primate House, and our red pandas.

There are several places around that have public feeding opportunities. It is a great way to have folks interact more closely with zoo animals. There are a lot of pros and cons to the practice, but from a nutrition standpoint, it can work out. We just need to keep in mind that we don't want to offer more food than the animal needs each day (that is keeping the diet appropriate for the animal in terms of nutrients and energy). If animals are being fed a controlled diet by visitors, everyone needs to realize that, for the health of the animals, it's not an open-ended event - once the animal's diet needs are met, the "event" should be over (lest we end up with a weight management problem)...

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Bowie, Md.: Since many animals in nature spend a large portion of their time searching for or killing food, what does the zoo do to simulate the mental stimulation of hunting or foraging?

Mike Maslanka: We try to distribute diets around exhibits as we can. We hide diet items, place them in bushes, trees, etc. Whereas this isn't "chasing down their meal" it is stimulation of some natural feeding behaviors, for sure.

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Fort Worth, Tex.: What do you do you with the left over bamboo stalks that the pandas do not eat? Are they thrown away or used in some sort of way?

John Kelly: I'll let Mike answer this, but I was actually wondering that myself as I watched his team cut bamboo. This time of year they don't need the bottom part of the stalk, so there were a lot of leftover bits, about 5 to 7 feet in length. I suggested they sell them to the public ("Real panda bamboo!") or turn them into: limbo bars, blowguns, Pier One tchotkes.

Mike Maslanka: We do end up with left over parts of bamboo, both in the stand where we harvest and after the pandas have consumed what they are going to consume of the diet offered. On site, we will chip the bamboo into a sort of "mulch" to reduce the size of the piles and possibly put some nutrients back onto stands. The panda leftovers are composted, as we do for other discarded food within our operation. Keep in mind, bamboo "mulch" is not like pine bark... not the best for lawn and garden work...

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Washington, D.C.: I've seen food in the exhibit -- and many animals running after it -- what do you do to maintain that the "big guys" or more aggressive ones don't get all the food?

Mike Maslanka: Creativity. A nutritionist can design a diet, but the keepers (the folks who know the animals best and work around them everyday) are the ones who manage them to get the appropriate diet. Often, that may be separating animals to feed them, keeping more "enthusiastic" eaters distracted while slower ones eat, etc, etc. You would be AMAZED at the skills of our staff at the Zoo to do this...

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Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: John --

Regarding the Vienna man with the car, I inferred from your column that most of his back window is covered with stickers. Is this correct?

And regarding "Willie Taylor," an article in the Post's Style section today suggests it's not completely on the up-and-up. Another possible clue: there's an old Irish/English ballad called "William Taylor" or "Willie Taylor" (the version by the Irish group Cran is particularly good) about a man who leaves his girl to sail off and eventually finds another love. He is discovered by his old love on his wedding day and is shot dead by her.

washingtonpost.com: A Cheater's Plea for Forgiveness -- Or Attention? (Post, Aug. 28)

John Kelly: Ouch. A woman scorned.... Yeah, the William Taylor story sounds fishy, but I wonder what the angle is. Why would someone make that up, unless it's just to have 15 minutes of fame? (Which seems to be enough to a lot of people these days.)

Tracy Leverton, the Vienna guy, has an open strip in the center of his back window. He's never been pulled over by the police for the stickers. In fact, he has several that are pro-police. "Crime is the opposite of peace," he says, "just like war is the opposite of peace."

He was driving from Ohio earlier this week and a Maryland trooper flashed his lightbar behind him. Uh-oh, Tracy thought. But the trooper pulled up alongside and flashed him a thumbs-up.

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Silver Spring Confidential, Md.: Hey John, since you are telecommuting, maybe you should walk down to the end of the street and talk to the folks at the corner of Columbia and Live Oak. From the trucks and yard signs, looks like they are installing some kind of geothermal heat exchange HVAC system. Might be worth a column?

John Kelly: Yes, I will. I saw that thing and wondered what was up. It looked like had a huge pile driver out there for a while. I didn't think Silver Spring was a hotbed of geothermal energy. It's not like we're in Iceland.

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Arlington, Va.: If people think the Post is bad, you should see all of the press in Thailand going gaga over their new panda cub, Lin Ping, at the Chiang Mai zoo. Every day there is a fresh photo of the cub and her mother. Last week the Crown Prince's wife and young son had a special audience with the panda.

John Kelly: Remember when Tai Shan was born? Butterstickmania hit the Washington area. Entirely warranted in my opinion. I just wish we'd have another one.

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Crofton, Md.: Zoo Nutritionist? Does every zoo have a nutritionist? What do you do all day?

Mike Maslanka: Every zoo does not have a zoo nutritionist. There are less than 20 of us at less than 20 zoos in the US. Our profession is growing slowly, but we may be where zoo vets were 20 years ago, in terms of folks realizing the importance of qualified nutritionists balancing zoo animal diets. Now, almost every zoo has at least one vet (in not multiple) on staff, and the numbers of zoo nutritionists are growing each year.

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pander to the audience: ha ha, you said 'pander' in reference to 'pandas'!

John Kelly: Panda-monium!

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Tai's 4th birthday cake: Had lots of beets in it! Is this a commonly favored food item?

Mike Maslanka: When it comes to pandas, we offer almost exclusively bamboo. They do get a few pieces of fruit or biscuits daily, but mostly bamboo. Beets provided us wonderful color for the cake but, for all intents and purposes, they were inert.

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State of Confusion and Denial: John, As a writer for The Post METRO section, and from what I gather, a frequent rider/user of METRO, what is your take on the series of mishaps/accidents that WMATA (Metro) has had this summer, starting with the tragic accident near Ft. Totten, the accident in the rail yard the other day, the operator pulling a 10-car train, from Greenbelt ... this list is endless.

When A.P.T A. (American Public Transit Agenecy) named CATOE as its Public transit Manager of the year, I was proud of his nomination. HOWEVER, since the nomination, all the METRO mishaps and considering that CATOE was supposed to bring LA Safety policies to METRO, don't you think he has failed miserably?? Should he give back the manager of the year award? Should he resign?

With your background, as a commoner (a common man), your opinion and that of the public of D.C. is valued.

John Kelly: I feel for Metro--both the people who work there and the people, like me, who ride it. It has been a bad summer. I'm sensitive to the argument that because the system has been underfunded, some of these problems are inevitable--or if not inevitable then understandable. But that can only go so far. I don't think Catoe should resign, or give back that award, but he's going to have to very clearly show what can be done to stop these tragic errors and how having more money will help. What do you think?

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Richmond, Va.: Too many animal stories. Some people really don't consider them "cute."

However, I love the zoo and all it does for educating the public and the protection of endangered species.

I guess it's the doggie-as-baby stories that I don't care for, come to think of it.

John Kelly: I'm fascinated by animals, both wild ones and domesticated ones. I guess we do go overboard some times but I actually think we could do more than we do.

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Washington, D.C.: Hello, my question is for Mike.

I was wondering how one would get a job like yours? I work for the government but I'd like a career change. I love all animals, but especially pandas. I know a lot of people say they do, but I actually got a panda tattooed on my body 6 years ago. Thanks!

Mike Maslanka: I started as a dairy nutritionist with a strong interest in wildlife (grew up tromping around the forests and fields of southeastern PA). As I went through school and gained experience, the zoo nutrition field was a perfect fit - conservation, science, nutrition, helping others and animals. More than anything it is persistence, gaining all the experience you can, and having fun with what you are doing. It is making sure that what we do on a daily basis is based in science - so having a handle on what is good science (and how to apply it) is a must.

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just the right amount of cute animal stories: But don't ask Marc Fisher for HIS opinion, the curmudgeon.

John Kelly: Yes, Marc is not wild about animals. As I walk my dog in the morning I've been trying to ponder what it is that having a pet does for a person. Does it give you empathy? Does it make you forgiving of imperfection? Does it make you less squeamish when it comes to matters of body fluids?

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Richmond, Va.: Guess you didn't like that scene from Tropical Thunder... not gonna spoil it, but it was so horrible it was hilarious. The panda is the most lovable creature of all!

John Kelly: Yes it was hilarious. I was asking the zoo's bamboo harvesters this week if they'd seen it. They hadn't. And it's not the sort of scene you want to describe to someone who hasn't seen it.

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Columbia, Md.: Hi John and Mike, I have always found it hard to believe that giant pandas only eat bamboo and that this one plant can give them all their nutrition. How is this possible and what great stuff does bamboo contain? Thanks.

Mike Maslanka: Bamboo is a low protein, high fiber foodstuff. We don't know of many things that seek out bamboo and consume it. This is simply because it is difficult to consume (unless in the shoot stage) and doesn't have a lot of readily available nutrients. That said, pandas have adapted to consume, digest, and (I hesitate to say) thrive on it. Most herbivores have a way to handle digesting plant matter - a bunch of microbes in their gut that digest cell walls and allow the nutrients to become available to the animal. Pandas don't. Their digestive tract is like that of a cat. SO, what is a carnivorous herbivore to do? They eat A LOT of bamboo that passes quickly through their gut and, oh yes, they do sleep a lot to reduce energy expenditure.

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Cute animal stories: John, the Post can never write enough cute animal stories especially in these down times. This is a big change from the Post in the past, when animals rarely graced the pages. It is heartening that in the past 5 or so years, animal stories have increased. Keep em comin!

John Kelly: You hear that, National Zoo? I will be a willing conduit for any animal stories you have! Don't give them to Fox 5, just because they have an animal in their name.

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Leaf-eater biscuits: What do these panda treats contain? Do you make (bake?) them there or are they produced commercially?

Mike Maslanka: They are commercially produced. The process is called extrusion. Basically, they are a high-fiber biscuit we use for a lot of our leaf-eating (folivorous) animals. They, like many of our biscuits, may start out containing a base of alfalfa, corn, wheat, etc, and then vitamins and minerals are added to make them "nutritionally complete."

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John Kelly: I want to answer a question that was raised last week. Someone asked about road work being done on Veirs Mill Road in Montgomery County, near Twinbrook Parkway and Aspen Hill Road. Here is part of the news release that was issued in September of 2008:

"Next week, the Maryland Department of Transportation's State Highway Administration (SHA) will begin a one and a half mile safety and resurfacing project along MD 586 between MD 28 (Norbeck Road) and the Rock Creek Bridge in Rockville, Montgomery County. Weather permitting, the project will be complete spring 2009.

"The $2.9 million project also includes culvert pipe cleaning, repair and replacement of the existing guardrail, inlets, and median, as well as curb and gutters. Safety improvements include upgrading sidewalks to meet ADA standards, and adding new pavement markings."

I drove by there yesterday and noticed clearings in the woods on either side and abutments that looked as if a bridge was going in. I called SHA and they said there will be a pedestrian bridge over Veirs Mill Road, joining two walking paths. If all goes well, it should be finished this time next year.

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Washington, D.C.: Are there different types of bamboo? If so, do you or the pandas have a preference?

Mike Maslanka: There are many, many types of bamboo in the area (100's?). The pandas show preference for different plant parts and different species of bamboo based on the time of year, temperatures, etc. This time of year, they are being offered the leafy portions of several types of bamboo. Other times of year, they will prefer the thick stem (called culm) and no leaves. They are amazing.

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Burke, Va.: Hi guys! I am a volunteer at the Nat'l Zoo and work with the Apes. I got a tour of the commissary facilities led by Mike and it was amazing! He and his staff have to supply an amazing variety of food to an amazing variety of animals. And Mike is a great speaker. The tour was great. (and yes -- he made it clear that he hates bamboo)

John Kelly: I'm sure that just as Capt. Ahab didn't really "hate" the white whale, Mike doesn't really "hate" bamboo. He probably has a healthy respect for it and considers it a worthy adversary.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Having recently visited the panda enclosure, I thought that it would be nice if it were named for Pat Nixon, whose idea it was to bring pandas to the Washington National Zoo in 1972. She did a lot of good and hasn't gotten any credit. What do you think?

John Kelly: I think the Nixon name is poison. Is there anything in this country named after any Nixons, besides the Nixon Library? And of course these days you name things after whomever gives you money for it. Thus the pandas live in the FujiFilm Giant Panda Habitat. I just had a thought: Is there still "film," FujiFilm or otherwise?

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Varied Diet: Mike -- Do you keep the animals on the same diet or do you add different things to the diet to keep it from getting boring? Also, are there certain things animals at the zoo detest? For example, I try out various fruits and vegetables on my dog and she hates cantaloupe -- wondering if there were similar experiences with the zoo animals. Thanks!

Mike Maslanka: Keep in mind that sometimes "boring" to us is appropriate for them (keeping nutrients and physical form of the diet consistent). That said, some of our primate diets contain over 25 items provided in a mix and match variety through the week. Again, all of this is managed to meet the animal's nutrient needs - when it comes to additional variety, that occurs in how the diet is offered, presented, hidden, etc. There are many ways to make it "interesting" not only for them, but for the staff and guests alike.

When it comes to not liking items - sometimes it is a matter of simply replacing the item with something they do like. Sometimes, like when Mom wants us to eat our spinach, it's because "that's what's best." As nutritionists, we sometimes have to practice "tough love" to get animals to consume the right things to keep them healthy.

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If not bamboo, then...: Too bad pandas don't eat kudzu. Can you feed it to any other animals? We were hiking recently on the trail up from TR Island to Chain Bridge and it was one, giant kudzu field (with some other noxious nonnatives mixed in). There is just a ton of food there if you can find someone to eat it.

Mike Maslanka: We have tried the kudzu route at numerous zoos, and it tends not to be a hit with many animals. Excellent idea, though!

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Silver Spring, Md.: I think NASA is ignoring the obvious answer to the Dutch wood question.

Clearly, the moon was at one time forested!

John Kelly: Silver Spring is referring to an item in my blog today, about the NASA gift of a moon rock to the Dutch that turned out to be petrified wood. Oops.

In other news. Do you think

these images

are pornographic?

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D.C.: Am I the only one to see some irony...or inconsistency...or something... in peacenik Tracy Leverton encouraging his 8-year-old's name-calling? ("McCain is a Weanie") Isn't that the sort of thing that starts and sustains conflicts?

John Kelly: No, I felt that too. Some of the stickers are pretty raw, a lot of ad hominem attacks against Bush and McCain. It's not something I would do but he's in a long line of Americans who feel that's the way they want to exercise their First Amendment rights.

Here's one thing I wondered: Tracy grew up in a conservative household and his now a liberal. He said he was sure his kids were being raised right and would be liberals. I wonder how he can be so sure.

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the District decided to clean up its library patron records and deleted all records if the person did not CURRENTLY have something checked out! : Sounds like my arrogant allergist. Been seeing him for over 10 years, but since I've been using good preventative care and haven't seen him, they label me a NEW patient and doctor doesn't see new patients in the afternoon. Doctor sees 'old' patients in the afternoon (convenient with my work needs), but not new patients. I"m not a new patient for crying out loud!!

John Kelly: I hadn't heard that some doctors do that. I know that some refuse to take any new patients at all. Can you send me an e-mail about that? (kellyj@washpost.com) And gesundheit!

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For Mike: Hi Mike -- Cool job! So what percentage -- ballpark -- of the zoo budget is for animal food? Also, do you ever feed a deceased resident to another resident? And do non-resident animals like mice and squirrel interlopers ever become food? Just curious. thx!

Mike Maslanka: We don't skimp on animal diets, but I cannot give you a strict percentage of our total budget. All of our food items undergo strict scrutiny in terms of quality control prior to be included in the diets. Our produce is restaurant grade (no seconds), we know how our meat and fish are handled prior to reaching us. We keep close tabs on all of this. When it comes to deceased residents, well, that is our Pathology Department. they are the folks who help determine why animals die, and provide the staff feedback on how we may improve our management (just another of the key service departments we have to maintain animal health).

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John Kelly: I hear it's raining. I'm ensconced in my new bunker in Conference Room 7, far from any windows. Can anyone confirm the deluge?

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State of Confusion: Personally, I think with all the METRO mishaps, that CATOE should give back his award as manager of the year.

I also think, instead of the luxury of building a silverline to Dulles, over burdening the ROSSLYN portal, the $$$ will be better spent of BRT (Bus Rapid Transit(to Dulles (Washington Flyer once had a service to Dulles, from W. Falls Church), and taking the $$$ to design/build a 3rd track thru the 106 mile system. MTS built its light rail system into a 2-track system once it opened, upgraded it from a 1-track with cut outs, so it CAN be done.

Dedicated funding to METRO is what's needed.

Reorganization from TOP to Bottom. No more dog hitting/kidnapping bus drivers either.

Only THEN, will METRO be a world class system, one that D.C. can once again be proud of.

John Kelly: Thanks for your thoughts. The 2-rail system does seem like a crazy mistake in retrospect.

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Herndon, Val.: Oh, yeah . . . and Halloween candy is out in the supermarkets! Food! You mean all my trick or treat goodies are going to be 2 months old?!?!

John Kelly: Candy is like Christmas trees*: That stuff was made months ago and won't be any staler for going up on shelves now.

*Most of your cut Christmas trees for this December are being harvested right now.

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3d and Constitution: Has been raining here but not right now (12:56 p.m.).

John Kelly: Thank you for that report. We should get a web cam to the outside world in our bunker.

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John Kelly: Okay, Mike, I have to ask you this: You mentioned that the elephants sometimes get hot sauce. Why? And what brand?

Mike Melaka: We are not at liberty to endorse any products on this show, but I think it's Frank's. Elephants can benefit from increased fiber in their diets (based on how their digestive tract works), and we try to provide this via their pellets, hay, and browse (woody vegetation). Yet, one other way we add fiber to their diet is via beet pulp. Beet pulp (what remains after the beet is processed for sugar) is pretty dry and tasteless (read: shredded cardboard). By adding a flavor to it (whether hot sauce or something else), we can encourage consumption. Again, it is one of those trade-offs we sometimes make for the good of animal health. In this case, it just happens to be a fun one to talk about!

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Fairfax, Val.: I have a good non-firing/firing story. I was waiting tables in college and it was the end of the night. My only table was a woman with her teenage daughters. I was very attentive as they were my only table. The kitchen made a mistake as to a type of pasta one wanted, which we switched literally within 2 minutes. As they paid the bill, the mother wrote out a check while the daughter fished out a quarter, nickel and dime from her mother's purse for the table. Yup -- the $0.40 was my tip on the $30+ meal. I went outside immediately as they were getting in the car, gave it to the mother and said, "It is more insulting for you to give me $0.40 than for you to give nothing at all." She was dumbfounded, stammered something about how the food tasted (like I made it), and left. I was "spoken to" and told the manager was talked out of firing me. But I didn't care if they had -- it was the principle of the matter at that point.

John Kelly: Is it pretty common that some people base a tip based on the entire experience, as opposed to just the server's service? We shouldn't, right? If we have a problem with the actual food we should say something and not stiff the waitress?

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Washington, D.C.: What animals at the zoo are the pickiest eaters? Which species tend to be hardest to feed well when they're not in the wild?

Mike Melaka: We are working with a lot of new species that not many folks have worked with before, especially amphibians. As we learn more, we realize how little we actually know about what these animals eat (and need, nutrient-wise). procuring appropriate diet items for some of these smaller amphibians will be a challenge. On the other hand, this represents one of the coolest things about what we do... there is never an end to the challenges. Never.

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Washington, D.C.: My question is unrelated to pandas, but sort of related to the zoo.

On my way to work, I drive past the Woodley Park metro station around 8 a.m., and I always see a huge line of people waiting for the station elevator. At first I thought, perhaps the down escalator is out of service, but I've noticed this phenomenon week after week after week. The people waiting, for the most part, appear to be perfectly capable of walking the extra 1/2 a block and taking the escalator down to the station, yet they line up to wait for the elevator. Do you think because the Woodley Park escalator is one of (or the?) steepest in the system, that people prefer to avoid it? What other reason would people choose to stand and wait for an elevator, rather than walking a short distance to continue on with their commute?

John Kelly: An interesting question. I'll have to head over at 8 a.m. this Monday and ask them.

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SW D.C.: I was pouring a little bit ago in SW.

John Kelly: Thanks for reporting in!

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Arlington, Va.: It's clearing up and getting brighter in Arlington. Thank God, I hate it when it's dark and cloudy.

John Kelly: Who needs Doppler radar when we have Post chatsters?

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Tai's gastric distress: There were reports of Tai having some digestive problems last year. I understand that he took meds for awhile, but did you have to alter his diet?

Mike Maslanka: There are relatively few things you can adjust in a panda diet. We adjusted his diet slightly (defined as: changed the type and/or life stange of bamboo we offered to encourage increased consumption).

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Richmond, Va.: Pat Nixon did NOT conceive of bring pandas to the U.S.! It was Ruth Harkness during the Depression! I read a great article in the Washington Post describing the daring female adventurer! (OK, sorry for all the exclamation points.)

John Kelly: Thanks! Pat Nixon DID bring Checkers to Washington, though.

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Re: State of Confusion: Whaddya mean, Washington Flyer "once had" service to Dulles from West Falls Church? The info may not be on Metro's site, but the service is very much available....I used it 2 weeks ago! Washington Flyer

John Kelly: Good to know. Thanks. (BTW, Answer Man writes about parking at Dulles this Sunday.)

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Alexandria Va.: The Post had an article this summer about how PG County was thinking of naming a school after Obama, and it mentioned that there is a Richard Nixon Elementary School somewhere. Also, I know that there is a Patricia Nixon Elementary School in California.

John Kelly: Well there we are. If FujiFilm goes bust, perhaps we can rename it the Haribo Moaom Fruit Sweeties Panda Habitat.

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Another good firing story: Went to have lunch with my new boss who replacing the woman who hired me. I said something about giving "100 percent" and she sniffed and said "I prefer people who give 110 percent." I was stunned and said "it's just a phrase and in fact, mathematically impossible to give more than 100 percent of actual capacity. Only increases really can go over 100 percent. It's just a catch phrase." I was fired for not being a team player.

John Kelly: Whoa. I wonder if they also believe success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. And if they have test tubes to measure that.

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Wasilla, Alaska: It's raining in Russia.

John Kelly: Thanks, Sarah.

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Washington, D.C.: Pandas were often given on behalf of the Chinese government as an act of diplomacy to other countries. The gift-giving of pandas dates back to the Tang Dynasty (625 AD) when they sent a pair of pandas to Japan. From 1958-1982 China gave 23 pandas to nine different countries.

Patricia Nixon did have a great love of pandas, and it was noted by Chinese authorities during the Nixons' historic visit to China in 1972. However, no records indicate that Mrs. Nixon "asked for" the pandas on behalf of the nation or the Smithsonian's National Zoo as a matter of fact.

John is right, between the costs of building a world-class habitat for giant pandas, combined with the loan fees to showcase these pandas, the amounts are staggering.

The current giant panda exhibit at the National Zoo is indeed named the Fujifilm Giant Panda Conservation Habitat thanks to the generous support from by Fujifilm. They donated $7.8 million to support the pandas and to promote conservation education, making them the largest single donor in the history of the Zoo with Fujifilm the lead corporate sponsor of the Zoo's giant pandas.

John Kelly: Thank you FujiFilm. I used to use your product all the time, back before I had a digital camera.

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Eastern Market, D.C.: What's your radical civility movement going to do about the person who was nice enough to crash into my car overnight and not even leave a note? A broken sideview mirror isn't a great thing to wake up to. The movement needs to be expanded!

John Kelly: Bummer. And the ultimate in rudeness. You can only hope that the karma monster will get him.

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Washington, D.C.: As a zoo nutritionist -- what animal would you like to work with -- work up a nutrition plan for -- that you have not worked with yet? Any new species in the future you'd like to work with that we can see at our zoo?

Mike Maslanka: I have enjoyed working with many animals through my career, both those represented in our collection at the Zoo, and those in other collections - vampire bats, rhinos, otters, flamingos, elephants, whale sharks, anteaters, etc, etc, etc. I have enjoyed them all. As we face increased challenges with declining amphibian populations, I find the nutritional needs of amphibians to be a hot topic and one that will face us for many years to come. Designing diets to maintain amphibians will, most likely, be a career-long challenge. When it comes to the future, the zoo nutritionist is challenged regularly by the goals of those who manage the animal collection. As one of the service departments of the Zoo, our goal is handle any nutritional challenge that comes down the pike associated with any type of animal (realizing it is often the most threatened ones that are the most challenging).

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Thunder and Lightning: Pouring and thundering in Silver Spring. Check your garage.

John Kelly: Uh oh.

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Annapolis, Md.: Do you give tours of your commissary? I saw how extensive it was on one of the Post's Zoo Tales piece... can you tell me more about it? How many people work there? What goes on there?

Mike Maslanka: We do give tours, and they are even up for auction at the Zoofari event at the Zoo. We have 12 peopel who work on the nutrition staff at the Zoo, and we do anything and everything diet-related you can think of - check in food items, make diets, deliver diets, harvest bamboo, etc. We even grow our own hay for the animals at the Zoo!

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John Kelly: All this talk of food is making this particular carnivore hungry. Thank you all for the interesting questions. And thank you Mike for answering them. I learned a lot today. I think there may be some Frank's hot sauce in my future.

Answer Man will be in the paper on Sunday. If I asked you to e-mail me today, please do: kellyj@washpost.com. And I'm always looking for column ideas. Don't be shy.

Enjoy your weekend and remember to chew before you swallow.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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