Clinical Animal Nutritionist
Smithsonian's National Zoological Park
Year zoo career began:
Erin Kendrick is a Clinical Animal Nutritionist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park where she is responsible for the nutritional welfare of the entire zoo collection, which keeps her on her toes! Most of the knowledge nutritionists have about animal nutrition comes from work with domestic animals like cows, horses, chickens, dogs, and cats, so applying that knowledge to exotic animals requires Erin to understand an animal’s natural diet and digestive anatomy, and how that compares to what she knows about similar animals. On a daily basis, Erin could be reviewing multiple diets for many different species from the smallest salamander to the largest elephants and everything in between, walking the park to assess body condition of antelope or the big cats, or working on a clinical case of any type with veterinarians. No day is the same, although every day includes a lot of reading, learning, communicating, and record keeping! Erin works closely with animal keepers, curators, veterinarians, and horticulture staff, as well as keepers and managers in the commissary. Communication is key, but Erin also spends time answering questions she doesn’t have answers for. For example, how can we increase carotenoids for an animal that eats mostly insects? How does reducing sugar in a primate’s diet improve its health?
Erin knew early on that she wanted to work with zoo animals, but as a child in a military family she moved many times to locations that often didn’t have zoos. Erin focused her high school and college education on the biological sciences, and she earned a Bachelor of Science in Zoology in 2003. During her undergraduate studies, she spent most summers working for local veterinary offices, which actually showed her that veterinary science wasn’t for her. Erin earned Master of Science in Natural Resources Sciences: Animal Ecology in 2006, and during her graduate studies she cared for captive animals held on campus for nutritional ecology studies. Her master’s degree research focused on understanding digestion in African blue duikers and was the moment she really began to understand the impact of nutrition on other aspects of an animal’s existence. After earning her master’s degree, Erin worked as a Wildlife Agent for the Extension Service at Washington State University, and in 2006 Erin became a Nutrition Fellow at the Saint Louis Zoo, where she worked as a consulting nutritionist for several zoos around the country. In 2010, Erin left the zoo to operate her own consulting business before moving to her current position at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.
Erin finds that her job links multiple disciplines together, as an animal’s need for food, water, and shelter come before all other needs. As a result, nutrition affects an animal’s behavior, cognition, growth, reproduction, and health, making for a fascinating, challenging, and rewarding career. There is so much science and work behind the food you see an animal eating when you visit a zoo, and nutritionists operate mostly in the background, working hard to make sure all the pieces fall into place. For aspiring nutritionists, Erin thinks it’s great that the path to being a nutritionist in a zoo can start with just about any biological science. There are only approximately 20 nutritionists in US zoos, but they have reached their positions by studying biology, zoology, physiology, anatomy, and/or ecology. It takes a lot of knowledge to be a great nutritionist and few people are likely to obtain this profession with less than a doctoral degree. Don’t underestimate the power of your professional network - foster the relationships you can develop, because you never know what’s going to pop up or who will think you are the perfect fit for that opportunity.