Erin (Kuhn) Kendrick vowed to save giant pandas when she was a child.

It was 1989. One of the five cubs born to Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute’s giant pandas, had just died. None of the pair’s offspring lived for more than a few days.

Woman with a face mask holds a young panda
Erin Kendrick manages food, diet, and nutrition for pandas and other animals at the National Zoo. (Courtesy Erin Kendrick)

“At the age of eight, I decided I was going to save giant pandas by figuring out why their cubs weren’t surviving,” says Kendrick (’03 Zool., ’06 MS Nat. Res. Sci.), a clinical animal nutritionist at the National Zoo in Washington, DC.

The pandas’ plight prompted Kendrick to pursue pre-veterinary medicine at Washington State University. Working at clinics during summers showed Kendrick veterinary medicine wasn’t exactly what she wanted to do. So she switched her focus to zoology and wildlife management.

Kendrick worked at the St. Louis Zoo, then as a consultant. In 2012, she landed the nutritionist job at the National Zoo. Lisa Shipley, a professor in the School of the Environment, helped guide her there as her graduate advisor. “She recognized my interest in exotic species and offered the opportunity to realize my dream, if not in the way I’d originally imagined,” Kendrick says.

Shipley said Kendrick just had to find or create the perfect job. “I learned so much from her about nutrition and research, but I’ll never forget her passion and how she encouraged me to find that for myself,” Kendrick says.

A wildlife nutrition course taught by Shipley and Charlie Robbins, director of research at the WSU Bear Center, “really sparked my passion for animal nutrition. Everything I was interested in⁠—health, behavior, reproduction, conservation⁠—I realized had a foundation in nutrition. Zoo nutrition is a small field, but I knew I could have an impact.”

The baseline knowledge for zoo nutritionists comes from well-studied domestic species and is then adjusted for the dietary needs of exotic animals. “If I’m formulating a diet for an elephant, I’ll consider what we know about horses,” Kendrick says. “For an otter, I’ll look at dog and cat requirements. Where it gets more interesting is when a species doesn’t fit the model. What about a vulture? It’s a bird, so perhaps poultry. But it eats only meat, so some nutrients might be better modeled by cats.”

Kendrick and her peers are learning more every year about species’ needs and how those differences shift dietary husbandry in zoos.

Seemingly simple cases sometimes become challenging. Pelicans in the wild receive enough vitamin E from fish, a dietary mainstay. However, when fish are frozen, stored, and thawed for zoo animals, that nutrient is depleted and must be supplemented. But supplementation regimes for other fish-eating animals don’t always work for pelicans. “We’re still working to get that right,” Kendrick says.

It isn’t just solid foods on the menu. The National Zoo houses the largest collection of exotic animal milks in the world, with more than 16,000 individual samples taken from more than 200 mammals. Milks are analyzed to see how much fat, protein, calcium, and other necessities are present. “Looking at milk on that level allows us to help with exotic species here, and at other zoos,” Kendrick says.

By the time Kendrick joined the staff at the National Zoo, both Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing had long since passed. Two new giant pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, came to the zoo from China in 2000. The pair had seven cubs, four of which lived to adulthood. Last November, the panda parents and their fourth cub returned to China, where the three older siblings had already relocated. Kendrick was responsible for their nutrition, along with the other 400 species at the National Zoo.

“I am so grateful to be part of this conservation program, contributing to the success brought about by decades of work by so many professionals,” Kendrick says. “For me, this all started with my fascination with the giant pandas, but I couldn’t imagine how things actually turned out. I love working with all the species we work to conserve, and I love what I do.”