Stricken penguins find another pal

Rescue: Baltimore Zoo keeper Sharon Overholser endures pecking to care for oil-tainted birds. But she is glad to be part of an effort that involves thousands of volunteers.

July 22, 2000|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAPE TOWN, South Africa - In a huge railway warehouse smelling of detergent and salt air on the edge of this port city, Baltimore Zoo's Sharon Overholser takes a seat in a tiny plastic pen, grabs a handful of dead fish and does her part to save a quarter of the world's African penguin population.

One by one she offers a slippery meal to 80 clumsy flightless birds crowded at her feet. Other hungry birds peck and nibble at her.

"I have bruises on my back, my hands and my arms," complains Overholser, the Baltimore Zoo's senior bird keeper, who arrived Tuesday to begin a two-week stay with the rescue effort. "I've been bitten more in one day than I have in one month at the zoo."

But, she says, there are few places she would rather be. It is a scene repeated in 300 plastic pens across the warehouse, where more than a thousand volunteers in overalls and rubber boots struggle to wash, feed and exercise 19,000 penguins contaminated by an oil spill.

Conservationists say it is the largest bird rescue operation ever.

Trouble for the African penguins started last month when a Panamanian carrier, the Treasure, hauling iron ore from China to Brazil, limped toward Cape Town harbor after it was damaged at sea. A hole 30 by 50 feet grew in its side, allowing some of the ship's 1,300 tons of oil to pour into the ocean. On June 23, the ship sank with its cargo.

An oil slick soon threatened 40,000 African penguins - also known as jackass penguins for the braying noise they make - living on Robben and Dassen islands north of Cape Town.

South African environmentalists mobilized an ambitious rescue effort to save the birds from disaster. They captured thousands of penguins and airlifted them off the windswept islands. Those that were unaffected by the oil were dropped off in the ocean far to the east, where they started a two-week swim back to the islands.

Rescuers took some 19,000 penguins soaked with oil to a converted warehouse on Cape Town's waterfront for cleaning and rehabilitation. What has resulted is a military-like operation in which wildlife experts and volunteers run each penguin through a rigorous detoxification program.

The oil-slicked penguins arrive blackened as dark as crows, chilled and often ill. After feeding and a rest, they are washed for one hour by two volunteers, one to scrub and a second to hold the bird. They are then given more rest, food and exercise until they can recover and be returned to the islands.

Organizers hope to return some of the first birds to the mostly oil-free islands next week.

Every day the drill is repeated, with about 500 penguins a day getting cleaned.

The process is traumatic for the birds, Overholser says.

"If you can imagine being soaked in oil and an alien picking you up and washing you, you don't know where you are, you don't know what is happening to you - it's very stressful," said Overholser.

So far, the program has been a success. Fewer than 1 percent of the penguins have been killed by the oil, environmentalists say.

"This is completely unprecedented in the amount of wildlife that has been affected," said Simon Pope, a spokesman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. But equally significant was the response by environmental agencies. "The reason we were able to save so many is that we acted so quickly," Pope said.

At one time, there were more than 3 million African penguins in the wild. Now, fewer than 150,000 birds populate the islands of South Africa. Disease, oil spills and loss of habitat continue to destroy the shrinking wild population.

Overholser's role in the rescue effort began after an 18-hour flight. She landed in Cape Town hours after a bomb explosion at the airport. Although no one was injured, the airport was closed temporarily.

She had left Baltimore in 80-degree weather and arrived to the wet, chilly winter of the Southern Hemisphere.

Two days before leaving, Overholser asked zoo guests and members for donations for the rescue. She arrived in Cape Town with a check for $2,500.

At the Baltimore Zoo, she has spent five years feeding and caring for its colony of 80 African penguins - one of the largest and most prolific breeding groups in the nation.

Her expertise is invaluable, rescue organizers say, because hundreds of well-meaning volunteers arrive every day wanting to help but not knowing how to hold or feed the birds.

She is the second volunteer from the Baltimore Zoo to help with the rescue. Steve Sarro, curator of birds, returned home from Cape Town recently after spending two weeks helping to care for penguin chicks.

Like Sarro, Overholser can expect to work 16-hour days with very little time to see South Africa's most popular tourist city.

"She has an awesome responsibility," said Timothy Viljoen, a supervisor for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. She is one of about 20 penguin experts there to care for nearly 20,000 birds.

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