You have to get up pretty early in the morning to feed all the animals at the Phoenix Zoo, especially when a special occasion menu is in the works.
"I got here at 5:30 this morning, mostly to do a lot of prep," says Missy Tirpak, lead animal diet technician at the zoo's commissary. She leads a team of four other women in preparing 200 to 400 "diets" per day for more than 1,300 animals. (If you're having a little trouble with the math, not every animal eats every single day, and a single "diet" can feed numerous animals living in group settings.)
This time of year, the commissary crew also makes "popsicles" for Winter in July, an event that will dump 60 tons of snow and a host of chilling activities on the zoo on Saturday. Designed to help people and animals cool off - and stimulate animals' senses during what can be a long, hot, boring summer - the event creates extra work for the kitchen staff, who must fill more than 100 orders for bloodsicles, fishsicles and other icy vittles.
Gross as it may sound, it's a process the staff looks forward to.
"Every year we try to take what we learned the year before about what the animals liked, what held up in the heat, what drew people's attention, and see what we can do to make it even better," says Tirpak.
Starting mid-week, the commissary's walk-in freezer begins to fill with their creations, almost artfully composed in buckets, bins, trash cans and cups between the regular duties of mixing recipes, portioning raw meat and bones for large carnivores, and tending an in-house mealworm colony.
In a 100-gallon drum, sliced watermelon, grapefruit, papaya and grapes are suspended in diluted Crystal Light. When removed from the plastic can, the enormous frozen cylinder will hang from a chain in the elephant enclosure.
Blocks of pretty pastel ice, made from watered-down Gatorade, carrots, berries and green beans for facial features. They'll become "snow" men for the primates.
Homemade fish-shaped molds hold something less appealing - at least to humankind:
"It's fish juice. It's literally all the fish gunk that's leftover after the fish cooks down. And whole rainbow trout. And sometimes we put blood in these, too," says Tirpak.
Those will likely go to the lions. Vultures will get frozen watermelons stuffed with meat, and one of the zoo's Sumatran tiger has a giant ice cube filled with rabbit parts with his name on it.
A former restaurant manager with a degree in conservation biology, Tirpak says feeding animals can be as complex as feeding people. Vitamin C is off-limits for lemurs, and hornbills have a hard time processing iron, for example. Zookeepers give the staff daily notes on animals' health and behavior, requiring constant fine-tuning of their diets.
But animals are more fun to serve, she says, even if their diets are limited and cooking is a rarity, like when a pregnant bear turned her nose up at everything but cooked chickens.
"The animals may not eat something, they may just sit and look at it, like, ‘What is this supposed to be?' " laughs Tirpack, "But they won't start yelling and cursing at you and throwing food at you. They're a little bit easier to please."
Winter in July
What: 60 tons of snow, cold treats for animals, and water activities for people make for a cool day at the zoo.
When: 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Phoenix Zoo, 455 N. Galvin Parkway
Cost: $18 adults, $9 kids ages 3-12. Save $2 per person by showing your Fry's Food Stores V.I.P. card at admission.
Information: 602-273-1341 or www.phoenixzoo.org
Animal play and feeding schedule
Animals in 75 to 80 percent of the zoo's exhibits will receive special icy treats on Saturday, according to Missy Tirpak of the zoo's commissary. The treats should keep the animals occupied for better viewing. Here's a partial schedule of feeding and activity times:
7:30 a.m. - lions get ice treats
8 a.m. - tiger gets ice treats
8:30 a.m. - otters get ice treats
9 a.m. - Galapagos tortoises get a water shower
9:30 a.m. - Andean bears get ice treats
10 a.m. - Komodo dragons get a water shower and warty pigs get ice treats
10:30 a.m. - baboons and mandrills get ice treats
11 a.m. - Tolleson Fire Department give elephant Reba a shower with the fire hose
Winter in July activities
• 25 tons of snow in two play areas for kids and toddlers
• Moving snowball targets
• Inflatable water slide and other water attractions, including Leapin' Lagoon and Yakulla Caverns water play areas
• Games and dance contests with Radio Disney
• 35 tons of snow and more than 100 icy treats distributed among the zoo's animal exhibits