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Each year, Shedd Aquarium sends teams of animal experts to South Africa during the nesting season of the endangered African penguin to assist rescue organization SANCCOB (South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) with the rehabilitation of abandoned chicks. Four Animal Response Team members recall their extraordinary opportunity to help some of the nearly 600 penguin chicks rescued during the 2018-2019 season.

A pair of large black cormorants coexist peacefully alongside African penguins in one of SANCCOB's holding pools.

Medicate, feed, hydrate, clean, repeat

Katy Roxbury, trainer, Marine Mammals department

The days at SANCCOB were structured similar to our penguins’ days at Shedd Aquarium. But because we were in the midst of a rescue effort, each day had the potential to be very different from the last. Mornings started around 8 a.m., when the staff and volunteers for the day gathered around a schedule board to see where everybody was assigned for the day, from the kitchen to the bird pens.

During the kitchen shift, which was similar to our prep shift in the Marine Mammals department, we made sure formulas were made, fish was thawed and prepped, and tubes were cleaned and ready for the next feed. Shifts in the pens ranged from working with the penguin chicks to intensive care birds that had been brought in by rescuers. In between these two areas, there were also pens with adult penguins awaiting release, aviary pens where rescued flighted birds were rehabilitated and the home pen, where the permanent residents of SANCCOB live.

A morning meeting at SANCCOB involving a crowd of volunteers, SANCCOB workers, and Shedd Animal Response Team members standing and sitting in a large room with a whiteboard on the wall as they discuss the day's agenda.
A crowd of 'blues', juvenile penguins who have recently shed their fluffy chick feathers in favor of sleek waterproof feathers, wait for their turn for feeding at SANCCOB.

My time at SANCCOB was spent almost entirely with the growing penguin chicks. Most of them had hatched from eggs that were brought to SANCCOB. We called these little penguins “chicks,” but by the time I started, many of them had graduated to the “blue” stage: They had lost their fluffy down feathers and had their waterproof feathers, which are bluish-silver.

First thing in the morning, all the birds in the chick pens received an electrolyte solution by tubing. These solutions often also had medications in them. From here, they would have a nebulizer treatment to help prevent or treat respiratory ailments that many of them faced. The next process for these little ones was a tube feeding of fish formula with vitamins, followed by hand-feeding of whole fish.

“We called these little penguins “chicks,” but by the time I started, many of them had graduated to the “blue” stage: They had lost their fluffy down feathers and had their waterproof feathers, which are bluish-silver.”

Katy Roxbury, trainer, Marine Mammals department

After the morning feed had been completed, we scrubbed and sanitized the pen and put down clean mats. Around midday, the birds were given more fluids in the form of water by tubing. In the afternoon, we repeated the routine, ending with one last rinse of the pen area.

It was incredible to see the improvement and change in these little penguins by the end of my visit! Many of the birds graduated from formula tube feeds to only needing whole fish because they had gained enough weight. They also grew healthy enough to be taken off many of the medications and nebulizer treatments that they had been on at the start, and most were now strong enough to start swimming several times a day. These swims replaced the need for water tubings as well. Once the penguins reached these milestones, the goal was to handle them as little as possible to prepare them for release.

The reward: The release

Laura Brakhage, animal care specialist, Marine Mammals department

During my time at SANCCOB we focused on rehabilitating chicks, but we also often saw rescued adults. While most of them were simply malnourished, some arrived with severe injuries, mainly from predators. It was incredible what the penguins could recover from! The bones of their flippers are shorter and flatter than in other birds and are incredibly strong. Since they use their flippers primarily for swimming, a penguin with a partially amputated foot did just fine back out in the open ocean. A surgery like that is just one example of the amazing work the SANCCOB veterinary team could accomplish.

Once the penguins at SANCCOB achieved all their rehab goals, they were ready to return to the wild. I was able to help release 27 penguin chicks! Before each release, SANCCOB staff members gathered important information to have for their records, including blood draws, microchip scanning and head and beak measurements.

Once the birds were loaded into their carriers, we drove an hour and a half to the Stony Point colony. With the help of local volunteers and park rangers, we brought the penguins to a private beach and opened their carriers. Often chicks were paired with a few adults so that the experienced birds could show them where to go and how to make it in the wild.

About 20 chicks stuck together in a large group and swam off right away with the adults, but four stayed close to the beach. We watched from a distance for about 30 minutes. Eventually the chicks caught on and made their way to the rest of the group. Being able to use the skills I’ve gained from working with penguins at Shedd to help these young birds recover, to then being able to watch them swim off into the ocean was an emotional and incredibly rewarding experience, one that I will never forget.

Saving African penguins from extinction

Erin Boyle, senior trainer, Marine Mammals department

Many people are surprised to learn that penguins live in Africa. Aptly named, the African penguin lives on the coasts of Namibia and South Africa. Unfortunately, this beautiful and charismatic species is endangered, with current estimates of 50,000 mature penguins, according to the International Union of the Conservation of Nature’s Red List. This is less than 10 percent of population numbers reported a century ago.

A host of man-made threats have contributed to the birds’ rapid decline in the last century, including factors that have disrupted the breeding season so much that penguin parents abandon their chicks for their own survival.

There is a global effort to help these temperate-climate birds, which are close relatives of Shedd’s Magellanic penguins. The African penguin is one of the focus species of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) initiative. The African penguin program coordinates the efforts of American aquariums and zoos, government and nongovernmental agencies, academic institutions and international conservation partners like SANCCOB to help increase the numbers of these birds.

Shedd’s efforts with SANCCOB on behalf of the African penguin date back to an oil spill in 2000, and we have been sending staff members there to assist with chick rehabilitation since 2014, During my two weeks at SANCCOB, I met people from all over the world who cared about the fate of the African penguin. This included staff members from Georgia Aquarium, Cheyanne Mountain Zoo, Henry Villas Zoo and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom through SANCCOB’s Keeper Exchange program. I also met SANCCOB interns and volunteers who came from not only South Africa, but also from Japan, Germany and Switzerland. Working together, we released close to 60 penguins back into the wild during my stay there.

An African penguin chick, covered in soft down, waits for its turn to eat at SANCCOB Seabird Centre in Cape Town.
Two mature African penguins sit atop a rock in Cape Town, Africa, touching necks.

We all can take action

Mina Min, trainer, Marine Mammals department

SANCCOB not only rescues and rehabilitates African penguins, but also rescue all types of seabirds, including Cape gannets, terns, cormorants, flamingos, gulls, oystercatchers, albatrosses, petrels and pelicans. I had the privilege of assisting in rehabilitating some of these marine birds as well as the penguins.

Whether it’s penguins, flighted birds, or other animals that we care for, we all have an impact on the environment around us. A wildfire broke out during the time I was in South Africa, and I witnessed the devastation it caused. On New Year’s Eve a man shot a signal flare into the air, and it started a fire that burned for more than two weeks, threatening penguins, other wild birds and the terrestrial wildlife that inhabited the area. Many people risked their lives to rescue as many animals as possible. The flames also endangered another SANCCOB facility, necessitating its evacuation. The destruction caused by one careless person was a stark contrast to the positive results so many of us were working so hard to achieve for the penguins. Whether it’s by rehabilitating wildlife, restoring habitats, contacting legislators, or donating a little bit to support conservation efforts, we all can take action for the environment and the welfare of the animals that we all love.