Disney scientist to share how nutrition research helps exotic animals live healthier lives

Sullivan black rhino.
Katie Sullivan, nutrition laboratory specialist with The Walt Disney Company, will share insights from her work with rhinos and other exotic species at the upcoming Halver Lecture on Comparative Nutrition, Feb. 21.

Katie Sullivan, animal nutrition scientist with The Walt Disney Company, will share her experiences in helping exotic animals live longer, healthier lives at Washington State University’s annual Halver Lecture in Comparative Nutrition.

“When you work with stingrays, rhinos, and giraffes, you have to be prepared to be surprised,” said Sullivan, a laboratory and research specialist at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and The Seas with Nemo & Friends at EPCOT.

Hosted by the Department of Animal Sciences, Sullivan will present her talk, “Working Outside of ‘Normal’: Using Practical Nutrition Research for Exotic Animal Health,” 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21, at Todd Hall on the Pullman campus. Established in 2003 by John Halver, a WSU alumnus and fish nutrition expert, and his wife Jane Halver, the lecture welcomes internationally recognized speakers in animal nutrition.

“Our department is very excited to welcome Dr. Sullivan as this year’s Halver guest lecturer,” said Gordon Murdoch, Animal Sciences chair. “We invite all interested students and scientists at WSU and across the Palouse region to join us for this annual tradition, which helps share and improve our knowledge of animal science.”

At WSU, Sullivan will relate how she and fellow scientists solve mysteries in exotic animal health, sharing her background and current topics in nutrition.

“We’re still trying to improve our understanding of the needs and normals of exotic species,” she said. “Nutrition research is one way we level up our knowledge.”

An advisor to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums on rhinoceros nutrition, Sullivan has a special focus on vitamins and minerals.

Katie Sullivan.
Katie Sullivan

“Iron is the number one mineral deficiency in humans,” she said. “In many exotic animals, it’s the other way around; iron overload leads to health problems over time. Natural browsers, black rhinos can absorb too much iron from diets under human care.

“They can eat up to 250 different types of plants in their natural environment ” Sullivan said. “We can’t replicate their wild diet, but we do provide the best and appropriate nutrition for what we understand as their needs.”

She works with veterinarians, endocrinologists, conservationists, and other specialists to study animal physiology and bring diets in balance. A problem solver, she addresses nutrient challenges that are mirrored across a range of exotic species, from rhinos to dolphins.

“I seek commonalities across these species, recognizing what already works well nutritionally, and then try to understand the exceptions, the problems, and the surprises,” Sullivan said. “Animal nutritionists ground ourselves in known frameworks, but the diverse species we work with are often throwing us physiological curve balls.”

Her career began much like other aspiring animal scientists.

“Originally, I was certain I wanted to be a veterinarian,” Sullivan said.

As an undergraduate at Cornell University, Sullivan attended a talk by comparative nutritionist and past Halver lecturer Ellen Dierenfeld.  The experience opened her eyes to the possibilities of animal nutrition.

“I went up to her afterward and said, ‘I’d love to work with you!’” Sullivan did just that, spending a summer at the Bronx Zoo researching such exotic swine as red river hogs and babirusa.

Later, as a graduate student, she studied kidney disease in giraffes, then as a doctoral student addressed iron overload in black rhinos while also looking at human nutritional biochemistry. She has spent the last 15 years with Disney.

“I love that my work involves so many different species,” Sullivan said. “We can learn so much from each other.

“We all have aspects of biochemistry in common across all species,” she added. “It’s where things are different that we can learn more about endangered species and how to help them.”

Black rhino eats.
Between 1970 and the 1990s, the global black rhino population dropped from about 65,000 to around 2,000 individuals. Some 240 are in human care. Nutrition laboratory specialist Katie Sullivan works with a team of scientists to help balance nutrition for rhinos in zoos and parks.