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Published: Sunday, 9/25/2005

Zoo feeding frenzy leaves patrons hungry for more

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Holly Melick of Tiffin holds her son, Ethan, 2, as he tosses a herring to seals at the Toledo Zoo under the watchful eye of zoo employee Tom Benner during The Big Feed. Holly Melick of Tiffin holds her son, Ethan, 2, as he tosses a herring to seals at the Toledo Zoo under the watchful eye of zoo employee Tom Benner during The Big Feed.
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Wearing rubber gloves nearly three times the size of his hand, 2-year-old Ethan Melick did his best yesterday morning to toss a herring into the mouth of a hungry gray seal.

Each time the slippery fish fell short of the seal's massive mouth, the boy and his parents, Matt and Holly Melick of Tiffin, watched Spike pick it up and swallow it whole.

It was feeding time all day yesterday at the Toledo Zoo, and people gathered in front of more than two dozen habitats to catch a glimpse of the action.

Although the zoo advertised its scheduled feeding times in the past, yesterday was the first time it did so on such a large scale: 27 demonstrations.

"The Big Feed" also included eight private feeding sessions during which patrons did the feeding - for an extra charge.

The Melick family was among seven people who paid $50 a person to get up close and personal to the fishy-smelling seals. They said it was money well-spent.

"It is one thing to see them at the glass. But to get up close and actually interact with them the way the trainers do was amazing," Mr. Melick said after his turn pitching fish.

Before being fed, the seals responded to commands by rolling over and diving into the water.

A shark's fin surfaces as aquarium keeper Angie Beener feeds the sharks during The Big Feed. Usually, visitors can see the sharks eat the food, but they can't see keepers feeding them. A shark's fin surfaces as aquarium keeper Angie Beener feeds the sharks during The Big Feed. Usually, visitors can see the sharks eat the food, but they can't see keepers feeding them.
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Lisa Merrill and Bob Price of Deshler, Ohio, were the first feeders.

"I didn't expect to get that close and really didn't expect them to do tricks," Mr. Price said.

At the tiger exhibit, more than 200 people gathered to watch the animals feed on calf carcasses.

Beth Stark, the zoo's curator of animal husbandry and research, said the demonstrations are an excellent way to show the public what really happens in the wild.

"Most animals spend 80 to 90 percent of their time in the wild hunting for prey," Ms. Stark told the crowd before the feeding began.

When she told them that the zoo does not feed live prey to its captive animals, a patron yelled, "That might be more fun."

Moments later, four Siberian tigers - a mother and her three nearly full-grown cubs - emerged from their den to find the carcasses.

As the tigers ran around with the meat in their mouths, most people seemed to tune out Ms. Stark's explanation of wild animal behavior and instead were captivated by the tigers' actions.

"Oh, it was really cool," said Tyler Berry, 10. "They were run-ning around and fighting over the food."

Daniel Welsh, an aquatic ecology master's student at Bowling Green State University, said the shark feeding was equally fascinating.

"Older kids get an appreciation that these are real hunting animals," he said.

In the afternoon, more than 200 saw the zoo's Komodo dragon dine on horse shank.

Charlotte Ellis, 13, of McComb, Ohio, said the Komodo, which is nearly 7 feet long and 140 pounds, couldn't get the meat without some help from a trainer.

"He couldn't get hold of it in his mouth," she said. "So someone used a stick to help him."

Although that part wasn't the most natural behavior, patrons still were thrilled by the show.

"Oh man, did you see the size of its mouth?" asked Terry Vasquez, 11, of East Toledo. "I want to see him eat again."

When that will happen is in the hands of zoo officials, who are considering how often to schedule similar events, Andi Norman, zoo spokesman, said.

Contact Ignazio Messina at: imessina@theblade.com or 419-724-6171.



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