Sunday, August 10, 2014

Penguins Are Cool (Unless They're Hot)

Very rarely will I ever make a sweeping statement for reasons other than humor and hyperbole.  But what I'm about to say (write?) is one of the exceptions, because uh, it's true.

At every zoo, there is a group of Elite Animals.  You know what I'm talking about.  Elite Animal Groups (EAGs) consist of species which every guest wants to see, every keeper/trainer wants to care for/train.  EAGs typically make an appearance in the Top 5 Favorite Animal List in approximately 99.0024% of the human population.  

EAG membership depends on the facility you go to, and what sorts of critters they have.  If you're a blue-billed duck at SeaWorld....let's just say your likeness will never be in ice-cream form.  

However, if you are a blue-billed duck at a smaller facility, like maybe a wildlife park or a small zoo focusing on birds, reptiles, and amphibians, you stand a pretty good chance at being a member in good standing of the EAG.

Some animals trump others, and that doesn't mean they are better, it's just that we know the public (and admit it, many keepers and trainers) are drawn to certain animals.  Here's a short list:

Dolphins (of all species)
Really giant alligators
Polar Bears
Big sharks

BABY elephants are just born into EAG fame!

As I mentioned, people's EAG priorities change when they go to a place specializing in certain types of taxa.  The Saint Augustine Alligator Farm (one of the most amazing zoos...not an actual farm!) houses every species of crocodilian found in the world.  They have a collection of exotic birds, small mammals, and other reptiles.  But their main attraction are their crocodilians.  So when guests come into the park, even if their favorite animal of all time is a beluga whale, you can bet that they'll find the EAG members appropriate to said zoo.  Who do they flock to?  The American alligators, the giant saltwater crocodiles, maybe the toucans.  So as you can see, the EAG is very specific to each zoo.

But what of the non-members?  The animal species that, no matter how awesome they are, just don't have what it takes according to public opinion to get membership into such a prestigious club?  How do they get their faces on merchandise?  What will it take for a guest to properly identify them, or know even a little about them?

This poor little dude is probably not in many EAG clubs.

Well, for one thing, we as keepers and trainers can advocate for them.  And so, today's post is about one of the coolest species of animals I've ever known who just can't quite make it onto the list....the African penguin.

A Frickin' Penguin!

"Whaaaaat!" you say.  "Penguins are SO cool!!! They are big and Morgan Freeman even talked about them.  They live in the cold and are really beautiful and huge and did I mention there was a documentary made about them?"

I know, right?  Penguins are usually on that universal EAG list, but unfortunately not the species I'm talking about.  Let's focus on the species of penguin at my facility: the African [black-footed] penguin.  

Everyone wants to see Emperor penguins, or chinstraps.  But when you get the little weird-looking penguins who live outside in the Florida heat, people get disillusioned.  Sometimes they even get mad.  They watch the penguins for about nine seconds, then go off to the EAG animals, who they'll stare at for a long time and will probably make some of them Instagram famous.

True story: This is the first image that came up when I googled "penguin".  And....the first warm weather penguin photo that came up was #27.  Let's just say there's a lot more Cold Weather Penguin Interest, clearly.

But African penguins are awesome.  They are just as penguiny as any other species.  In fact, I'm relatively certain that any Audubon avian publication would agree that the following characteristics define a penguin:

1) Flipper wings

Look at those flippys!

2) Teeny tiny little feathers that look shiny and sort of like fish scales up close, but all
     together look like fur

Seemless feathers!

3) They have tuxedo plumage

Sometimes they're even named Tux, like this handsome old fellow

4) They have little stump legs...

Stick legs

5) ...which end in adorable, fat webbed feet

Look at those cute feet!

6) Their primary locomotive movement on terra firma is waddling (secondary is hopping)

Chris Waddle.  Epic mullet, bro.

If you have a bird who has all of the above 6 characteristics, it's a penguin, even if it doesn't live on a glacier.

African penguins are indigenous to South African coasts, the climate of which is pretty similar to that of where I live.  The only exception to this rule is in the winter, when it gets really ridiculously cold for Florida and it actually becomes too cold for the penguins.  I am always extremely envious of our little penguinos in the winter time because during the day, they get heat lamps.  Trainers don't get heat lamps.  And during the evening, they all merrily hop into crates for a short transport to an indoor facility where they are placed to spend a nice, warm evening.   "SUCKAAAAS!!" they seem to say, as we frozen animal caregivers go back into the 30 degree weather to feed out the rest of the animals.

Here's another cool fact about African penguins: they make some seriously interesting sounds.  Their other common name is the Jackass penguin, because one vocalization in particular sounds like a braying donkey and/or Bob Dylan on his latest Christmas album.   Pound for pound, these little water birds can create some serious volume.  

Best review I read about his latest Christmas album: " 'I'll Be Home For Christmas' sounds more like a threat."

But that's not their coolest vocal.  In fact, the one I like best is simple, and it also scared the crap out of me when I first started working with them.

For those of you who work with birds who can talk, you know what I'm talking about.  When I adopted my yellow-naped amazon Sprite, he had two previous homes and had learned a bunch of different words and phrases.  I'd heard a couple of them, but they sounded very "birdy", like it was obvious a parrot was talking.  

One day, when I was doing laundry in my apartment, I heard:

"Hi.  How're you?" in a perfectly human voice.  "Sprite?" It continued on.  "Spriiiite?  Spriiiiiiiiiiite!"


I'm already pretty high strung when it comes to home invasions, in that I'm pretty sure any noise occurring in another room after 8:30pm is probably a violent criminal coming in to attack me.  Quick quiz: Which of the following reactions to this situation did I have?

a)  "Oh, that Sprite! Ha ha! What a good talker!"

b) "WTF? Oh, that's just Sprite!"

c) ........*poops pants and doesn't move for several minutes until Sprite starts making normal amazon parrot sounds*

Just to prove to you how nervous I am about this whole Deranged Serial Killer In My House phobia I have, let me now admit that this was not the last time Sprite terrified me.  He convinced me on another occasion that a man was in the house, when he decided to say, "OH MY GOD" really loudly. He has only said it that one time, and has never said it since.   That may have something to do with my immediate reaction of Almost Cardiac Arrest.

I'd be okay with this serial killer.

I started at my current work in January of 2013.  You know, winter time.  The time when penguins would be sleeping more nights than not inside.  And at this time, their makeshift night habitat was happily situated in a common room between the male and female animal care employee locker rooms.  On my second day, I went to work early for a meeting with my bosses.  I walked straight into the locker area after saying hello to the penguins, and started to get dressed.

This locker room does not have a lot of privacy.  Where I had just come from had a really beautiful, abnormally nice locker room with a real door and many bathroom stalls.  The one I have now is nice, but there is only one bathroom, and the locker area is blocked off from the common area by a shower curtain.  I figured that well, it was very early, and it wasn't like the girl's locker room faced any windows, so I didn't bother to close the shower curtain and began to change into my bathing suit.  I'll assume that you, dear reader, know what one must do with clothes before getting into a bathing suit.  

As I made the transition from "clothed" to "not", I heard a voice.


"SOMEONE IS IN HERE!!!" I yelled, and dove into the bathroom, freaking out.  SOMEONE HAD SEEN ME!


I was mortified.  Here I was, a brand new assistant supervisor on day 2, and I'd just shown more of myself to someone whose name I probably didn't even know yet.  

"Sorry!" I said.  "I didn't know anyone was in here!"


That's rude, I thought.  I got myself together and pulled up my bathing suit.  I peered out of the bathroom and saw no one.

"Hello?" I asked.  


I walked out into the common area, only to be met by all of our penguins staring at me. 

"Oh!" one of them said.

I laughed, amused and sort of embarrassed that yet again, I'd been foiled by a bird. 

Fools all, those humans!

Another cool fact about African penguins?  They totally decorate their homes.  They naturally live in burrows and caves, so we provide them (as do most facilities with these guys) with huts.  Mated pairs and swingin' singles alike find their own hut and make it their own.  During breeding season, they'll build a nest out of whatever material they can find/is provided for them.   Sometimes, they'll steal material right out of other birds' huts, which makes for an interesting drama.

I really like to look at them like they are a soap opera.  Stealing home wares aside,  their lives are very much like that of other bird species: Eternal melodramas. For example, despite the fact that African penguins are classified as "monogamous", they don't always act that way.*  Humans love a simple, quick classification and get very uncomfortable when we see ourselves in animals.   A mated pair may be happily together for many years, but one day, the female leaves her man and shacks up with another.  

You ain't seen drama until you watch a bunch of these guys get up in each other's business

They are also very much exhibitionists.  When one pair starts Adult Activity, the others get amped up and start their own fun.  It's not a stretch to say that African penguin fertility success rates increase in larger colonies...because the more reproductive activity happening around them, the more "inspired" the penguins are to consummate their own penguin-wedded bliss.

So no, they don't have harrowing journeys through crazy winter storms for weeks and weeks just to get to sea to stuff their faces with enough food to feed themselves and their tiny chick, who was left with dad to stand for an equally long amount of time (don't they get bored)?  But African penguins could easily have their own reality TV show.

I wonder if the reason people are just so like, blah about African penguins is because they look a lot like birds.  And the EAG penguin species (kings, emperors) aren't really...that bird like.   They are statuesque and the side of them that is often shown on TV is not very birdlike behavior (at least to the laymen).

Think about it.  It really takes a special person to love birds.  Most people I talk to (and this includes devoted animal lovers) are lukewarm, deathly afraid of, or just really don't like birds.   Maybe it's because they have a beak that hurts when they bite, or perhaps it's the fact that birds are just weird looking.  They are living descendants of dinosaurs (it's official!), so maybe that's the disconnect.

I...obviously love birds.

Do African penguins bite?  Oh, yes.  They are such typical birds about it, too.  You'll go in there all excited to feed them and interact with them, especially the ones with whom you have a good relationship.  And they'll make their little "OH!" sounds when they see you, and dip their heads and give you the Lovey Eyes.  And as they waddle over to you you think, "This is so great, I have a penguin friend," and they come over to you and start soliciting attention.  Everything is going great and then out of no where BAM! The skin on your elbow is in between their sharp beak and they're just twisting that *#&% back and forth back and forth.   Owowowowow.


But like any birds, you learn to deal with it.  It doesn't ever stop hurting, but that's the deal when you work with birds.  For those of you Emperor penguin snobs out there, they bite too.  Ask anyone who works with them.  Birds is birds!

I have had the pleasure of working with one particular penguin who I don't think has a biting bone in her body.  She'd rather play with her toys, sit in your lap and look at you.  In fact, when she's scared, she'll run right over to you and be as close to you as she possibly can (and if you're sitting down, she'll be in your lap right away).  But that just goes to show that penguins are:

1) As individually unique as any animal with a brain
2) Plain ol' birds!  

The sweetest penguin in all the land

If I had my way, there'd never be any EAG animals.  All guests would appreciate each animal equally despite the species, and all trainers would want to work with them.  But I know that's not possible, so I'll make an official motion to add Penguins of All Species to any EAG list at any zoo.  I'll tell you that most trainers who start at my place of employment probably start out with Dolphin Fever, but once they get to know the penguins, they fall in love.  Why? Because African penguins are awesome.  They are intelligent, hilarious, beautiful, and perplexing animals, worthy of awe and admiration.

So what about you, fellow keepers and trainers?  Which animal species at your zoo or aquarium get looked over by guests the most?  Maybe if we bring awareness to how awesome these animals are, we can start to increase their popularity!


* True in so many birds we think "mate for life"


  1. I dream of a world where Bowfin & Slipper Lobsters are in the EAG club.