Zoo penguins get in the swim Teaching: In the country's most successful captive breeding program, Baltimore Zoo animal keepers step in to help the chicks learn to feed, enjoy the water.

December 01, 1996|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Animal keeper Carrie Byam lifts an African black-footed penguin, gives it a little backswing and tosses it six feet into a shallow pool of water.

It's not animal cruelty. It's just another swimming lesson at the Baltimore Zoo, where people teach penguins how to be penguins.

As part of the nation's most successful captive breeding program for African black-footed penguins, keepers at the zoo's Rock Island exhibit take the chicks from their parents three weeks after birth and raise them by hand, teaching them how to eat and swim.

With more than 60 of the penguins, which are native to the coast of South Africa, the Baltimore Zoo has the largest captive colony in the country and is second in the world to the zoo in Amsterdam.

Baltimore's breeding program recently received the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's Edward H. Bean Award, the highest honor it gives to a member organization for animal care and conservation.

The breeding program, which serves as the zoo association's Species Survival Plan for the North American population of African black-footed penguins, allows the zoo to study the captive population and manage reproduction of the species.

Since 1967, the zoo has produced more than 700 chicks, which have been distributed to zoos across the country and world. Approximately two-thirds of the captive African black-footed penguin population is related to the Baltimore Zoo's flock.

Taking the penguins from their parents as chicks is a practice that originated at the Baltimore Zoo, but is now standard in zoos across the country, said Steven J. Sarro, the zoo's curator of birds.

"It's a management technique [so] that the keepers can watch the growth and medical condition of the chick, so they get better care," Sarro said. "At the same time, it lets them know that the keepers are here to feed them and care for them and not be afraid of them, which would happen if we allowed them to stay with their parents until they began to molt."

Zoo keepers allow the baby penguins to stay with their parents for three weeks after birth. "They get three weeks to understand that they're penguins," said keeper Steve Marroulis.

Taking the birds

After that, the keepers carefully remove the birds, a tricky feat considering that penguins have sharp beaks, and both chick and parent will take a piece of the keeper's flesh, given the chance.

Marroulis dons a pair of work gloves as he prepares to pull the parents out of the nesting box.

He grabs the penguins by the backs of their necks and holds them in each hand like bowling pins. Then Byam, the other keeper, reaches in and pulls out the chick.

The parents don't seem to be bothered too long by the baby-napping. "It seems like the longest they get upset is half a day," Marroulis said.

The chick is measured and weighed -- it tips the scale at 1.01 kilograms -- and gets a colored identification band for its wing. Henceforth, this penguin shall be known as No. 911 Red.

Learning to eat

For the first three weeks, the parent penguins regurgitate food to feed the chicks. After they are separated, the keepers feed the chicks by hand and have to teach them to swallow whole fish.

Byam holds the just-separated chick in her lap and puts a small rainbow trout in its mouth. She massages its throat to coax the fish down. She feels its belly to determine when the penguin is full.

"In a day or two, he'll have a really good feeding response," Sarro said. "He'll understand that Carrie will be trying to feed him and not hurt him."

Swimming lessons don't start until the penguins start losing their down, when they're 7 to 8 weeks old.

The keepers dunk the penguins in water to help remove the down and to encourage the birds to preen themselves. Then they start tossing the penguins into the pool, three times a day, coaxing them to the edge and teaching them how to get out.

"Initially, it's a big shock for them. They're afraid," Marroulis said. "The anxiety level reduces as they continue to do it."

Out of the pool

The penguin that Byam tossed in the pool reacts like a fish out of water, flailing its wings wildly before making a beeline for the exit. It struggles to get out at the pool's edge, finally propping its wings on the corners and pushing up and out with its feet.

Eventually, when the chicks are about 10 weeks old, instinct kicks in. Instead of heading right out of the pool, they begin to swim and enjoy themselves in the water.

"It seems like it just kind of happens one day," Marroulis said. "One day they realize it's a fun thing to do, that they're supposed to be there."

A few more weeks and they're ready to join the rest of the colony. The keepers' job as surrogate penguin parents is done.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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