Preparing meals for apes to zebras

he Indianapolis Zoo is home to more than 1,500 types of animals.

Someone there has to know what to feed them, and Seymour native Chas Weber is among that group.

After spending 3½ years in the horticulture department at the zoo, a position opened up in the nutrition department in 2012.

“I figured it was my best chance to get into a field pertaining to my schooling,” the 34-year-old Bargersville resident said.

Weber graduated from Seymour High School in 1998 and then went to the University of Southern Indiana, where he earned a degree in exercise science with a minor in nutrition (human).

“I was a personal trainer for a few years but eventually went back into the landscape business, which I had done since my teens,” he said.

In 2008, he was hired in the horticulture department at the zoo. His responsibilities included taking care of landscape areas throughout the facility on and off exhibits.

Then in the spring of 2012, he became the nutrition center coordinator. And in February of this year, he was promoted to nutrition center area manager.

In the coordinator position, Weber said he was in charge of filling diet orders and making deliveries. As area manager, he still helps with deliveries, but his staff fills the orders and does more general kitchen duties.

He now does a lot more with ordering, budgets and hiring. He is one of two full-time people in the department, but there are interns, volunteers and seasonal workers.

In the nutrition department, he said, he has been fortunate to work under the guidance of Dr. Jason Williams, the director of nutrition. Weber said many zoos around the country don’t have a nutrition department or a doctor on staff.

“(Williams) is one of the finest in his field,” Weber said. “He prescribes diets for all of the animals — some individually, some by group. And through his evaluation and expertise of each case, with the help of the veterinary staff who we work alongside, he will write out prescribed diets to which we will fill dietary orders in accordance with.”

Weber said he has learned the most about nutrition through hands-on experience.

“I haven’t even scratched the surface of all that it takes to keep these animals nutritionally healthy,” he said. “But I’ve just tried to pick things up on a case-by-case basis. It’s really interesting, and we’ve done some remarkable things.”

Weber said the nutrition staff are among the first employees to arrive at the zoo each morning. Their first duty is to deliver diets, which are prepared by the staff the previous day, to the different animal areas so that keepers can feed them in accordance with prescribed diets.

From there, Weber said, he works on maintaining inventory of animal foods.

A big part of the department’s job is to make sure everything is clean and up to U.S. Department of Agriculture standards.

“Food contamination is something we watch out for very strictly,” Weber said. “An animal cannot tell you that he’s had spoiled meat or moldy grain, so we have to make sure that that possibility is eliminated on our end. These animals, in some cases, are very rare and very costly, so to lose one because of negligence of sanitary guidelines would be unacceptable.”

The staff also works to prepare produce, grain, hay, meat (thawing) and enrichment portions of animal diets for the next day.

The hay includes more than 125 bales per week, and that has a Jackson County connection with 75 percent of it coming from Plumer Hay Farms in Cortland. The rest comes from farm grounds at Indianapolis International Airport.

As far as interacting with animals, Weber said he delivers food to each animal area daily, and he has helped with many veterinary procedures on tigers, dolphins, snakes, birds, bears and lions when extra help is needed.

Weber said that when growing up he never thought he would work at a zoo or do anything involving animals. But he is happy with where it has taken him.

“Animals always interested me, but I never thought I’d make a career of working with them,” he said. “I really have grown to love the reasoning behind the importance of proper nutrition for these animals. We’ve done a lot of good things to help sick animals through tweaks in the animals’ nutrition.”

Weber said he hopes to work at the zoo for many years to come.

“The zoo provides great career opportunities, benefits, a retirement package, and I look forward to my job daily,” he said.

For others interested in a similar career, Weber recommends going for it.

“Find something that makes you proud,” he said. “Because when you’re doing something that makes you proud, happiness is a regular byproduct.”

Weber file

Name: Chas Weber

Age: 34

Hometown: Seymour

Residence: Bargersville

Education: Seymour High School (1998); University of Southern Indiana (bachelor’s degree in exercise science with a minor in nutrition (human))

Occupation: Nutrition center area manager at the Indianapolis Zoo

Family: Wife, Stephanie Schrink Weber; children, Brady, 7, and Grace, 5; mother, Carlene Sorensen of Seymour; father, Pat Weber of New Albany; and late stepfather, Mike Sorensen

On the Web

For information about the Indianapolis Zoo, visit indianapoliszoo.com.

Author photo
Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.