Developing the perfect product for exotic animals: a nice challenge!
Why do we develop new products?
We are happy to help our customers solve food-related issues and as a result we have a lot of contact with the zoos. That is how we get most of our ideas to develop new products. When we see there is a need for a product but can’t find the right solution, we consider developing it ourselves. Sometimes we just have a new idea about an ingredient or raw material that hasn’t been used before, or a new shape of pellet that we would like to try.
How do we start?
When we have an idea for a new product, we start with research. We do a literature study and search on the market for comparable products.
We conduct a literature study on the natural diet of the animal we are making the product for. You often can’t copy the exact natural diet of the animal. This also isn’t always desirable because of the different environment and activity levels of wild and captive animals. However, you can use it as an inspiration for the ingredients you want to use in your diet. For example, when you are making a diet for browsers, it is important to take the right fiber source into account. Giraffes for example are typical selective browsers, when you are developing a diet for them you want to use fiber sources that reflect this natural diet. With the right ingredients you can develop a pellet with a suitable fiber content and fiber fractions in the correct ratios.
In order to collect more information on the requirements of this animals, you can also study the digestive system of the animal. You want to develop a diet that can be digested in an efficient manner. The digestive system of the animal often reflects their requirements. Colobus monkeys for example have a high amount of leaves in their natural diet. This is clearly reflected in their digestive system. With a large four-chambered stomach they are very capable of fermenting fibers. Knowing this, it makes sense that they have a high fiber requirement, but also that starch and sugars can be a problem because of the risk of acidosis.
Graphic visualization of the digestive tract of a colobus monkey (Stevens 1995).
The third part of the literature study is collecting available data on the requirements of the animals. Sometimes studies are done on requirements of certain nutrients, this is of course very useful information when composing a diet. However, because of the large amount of animal species that are kept in zoos there is not always information like this available. It can however be useful to use studies on requirements on animals with comparable digestive systems. This can be a basis for nutrients requirements of the animal you are developing a diet for.
Comparing existing products
We also investigate existing comparable products from other manufactures. We compare and see what the differences are between these products. We use this as a basis and then ask; Why where these ingredients choose for this composition? And what do we want to achieve or do differently?
Designing the product
Once we have collected all this information we can decide on the composition and shape of the product.
As explained before, we choose the right composition and analysis of the product based on the animal’s requirements. When choosing ingredients there is also something else to take into account: sustainability. What impact do the ingredient have on our environment? Is there maybe a sustainable alternative? A good example of this is the use of insect meal. The insect meal we use is a high-quality protein source made from the larvae of the Black Soldier Fly. The production of insect meal is much more sustainable compared to other conventional protein sources because of lower greenhouse emissions, lower land area used and lower water use during production.
Recourses needed to product 10 kg of protein of different protein sources (Protix, 2019)
Besides this, for many animals it is a very suitable source of protein because they have insects in their natural diet anyway. The amino acid composition of the insects therefore matches very well with their requirements.
Shape and process
Not only is the composition important, but also the shape and texture of the product. This is one of the most important factors in the palatability of the diet by the animal. In general, there are three options; making an extruded pellet, a pressed pellet or a powder. The choice between these options depends on the animal we are making the product for. Primates for example generally prefer extruded pellets to pressed pellets. One of the most important factors with this is the hardness of the pellet. When the structure of the pellet is too hard the acceptance will be low. The anatomy of the animal also needs to be taken into account when deciding which product shape or texture is best. Giant Anteaters for example; their natural diet consists of ants and termites, which they can easily collect with their long tongue. When developing a diet, it should be easy to consume for the animal. That is why we choose a powder form for our DK Insectivore Diet to which water should be added to form a gruel. This form of diet is very easily ingested with the tongue of anteaters and doesn’t cause blockages in their long snout.
DK Maintenance Hi-fibre, extruded pellet DK Omnivore diet, pressed pellet DK Leaf-eater Large, large extruded pellet DK Insectivore diet, powder
Find a producer
When we have decided what this is the best shape for the product, we then need to find a producer who can produce it for us. We have a commercial producer for pressed pellets and another for extruded pellets. Together with the nutritionists of these companies we decide on the final composition of the product and make a test batch. Not all animal feed producers are allowed to use animal proteins in their factories. Therefore, we have recently started with our own production setup at Kiezebrink to mix powders which contain animal protein. This gives us the opportunity to produce powder form products and to make small test batches of new products.
Our own production of powders (Kiezebrink, 2020)
Once the product is produced, we can start with the test phase. We don’t have any of our own exotic animals, but we work in close cooperation with a lot of zoos in the Netherlands. They feed our new product for a period of time. If you only test the product for one day, there is always the risk that the animals just eat it because it’s new. When you not only want to test the palatability, but also the general wellbeing of the animal, you will need to feed the new product for a longer period of time. We gather feedback about the combination of both palatability and the long-term effect on the animal. This is usually done with faecal and body condition scoring and coat quality. Changes can then be applied if we aren’t getting the desired result. Once we are satisfied with the test phase, the product can then be brought to market.
Introduction on the market
Once we have introduced the product, we make samples which we offer to our customers. This gives us the opportunity to receive more feedback on the product and it’s an easy way for the zoo to decide whether they want to start using the product for their animals. We try to keep in touch with the customers who are using our products, to receive feedback on long term use and to get information about which species they are using it for.
We are always open for new product ideas and feedback about our existing products. Do you want to share an idea with us, or are you using a product of ours and want to share feedback? Please contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org.