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Conservation | Birds

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


On June 23, 2000, an ecological disaster occurred when the ore carrier MV Treasure sank off the coast of South Africa between Dassen and Robben Islands near Cape Town which supported two of the largest colonies of the African Penguin (Spheniscus demerus) in the world. Oil from the sinking ship surrounded the Islands where 40% of all African Penguins breed. Over 1,300 hundred tons of bunker oil covered the rookeries. The timing could not have been worse as it was the time of year when the penguins hatch and raise their young. Over twenty thousand penguins and their hatchlings were oiled and imperiled. The African Penguin is the only penguin species that breeds in Africa, and it is found no where else. Without help, tens of thousands of these penguins would die.

A cry went out worldwide to zoos and aquariums for assistance. They sought the expertise of these facilities to help deal with this disaster. The Aquarium of the Pacific was one of the facilities that answered the call. They sent their aviculturist, Karen Anderson, to Cape Town, South Africa to assist in the rescue operations. Karen at the time was one of the foremost experts on penguins having tended to them at other facilities.

When she arrived she found thousands of oiled penguins occupying a huge abandoned railway warehouse in Cape Town. The site had been set up as an avian washing and rehabilitation center. Her expertise was immediately put to use as she helped set up protocols for the care and feeding of the emaciated marine birds. The task seemed daunting. The oiled birds first had to be rounded up and forced fed. Wild penguins normally do not take fish from humans so people had to restrain the birds to guide a feeding/medication tube or fish down their throats. Without this nourishment and hydration, they would not have the strength to survive the vigorous oil cleaning treatment they would have to undergo in the coming weeks. After being force fed a few times, the penguins would eventually get the idea of taking the fish directly from the hands of humans. The birds would then begin the long process of having the oil washed from their feathers.

It’s a daunting enough task with a few hundred oiled birds as I and many other Aquarium of the Pacific folks know firsthand from helping out in the treatment of oiled shorebirds and seabirds from a much smaller spill in California a few years ago. It’s an unimaginable task having to treat over twenty THOUSAND birds.

The Cape Town warehouse had over four hundred penguin pens set up inside, each holding up to eighty distressed animals. It required over a thousand volunteers a day to support the facility. Penguin experts like Karen had the task of training the inexperienced volunteers from the Cape Town public and turning them into skilled penguin keepers and rehabilitators in a very short time. Another one of Karen’s jobs was inspecting each pen daily to pick out thin birds. These birds were brought to an Intensive Care Unit where they were kept warm so their precious calories could go toward gaining weight and not keeping warm.

It wasn’t just a matter of washing the oil off the penguins. The birds had to then go through a rehabilitation period where they were treated and inspected as they regained their water-proofing in outdoor fresh water pools. The pools helped wash the cleaning agents off the penguin’s feathers. Residual soap could inhibit the feather’s ability to keep water away from the bird’s body and cause heat loss. The penguin’s down was inspected for any wetness as even a small leak through the covering feathers could imperil the bird by causing hypothermia. Only after they were completely waterproof and healthy were the penguins released back into the wild. The entire process took weeks.

Through the efforts of the people of Cape Town, the environmental and animal welfare organizations involved, and the zoological expertise contributed by staffers from many of the zoos and aquariums of the world, over 90% of the oiled penguins survived. Folks like the Aquarium’s aviculturist Karen, who answered the call for help during this environmental crisis, are real wildlife heroes.

If you take the Aquarium’s Behind-the-Scenes tour, you’ll get to see the Bird Quarantine room that is named in Karen’s honor. You also might even see her in person caring for our alcids (puffins and auklets) and shorebirds.

Karen in South Africa during the oiled penguin crisis.  | © Karen Anderson
African Penguins undergoing treatment in South Africa.  | © Karen Anderson
The Cape Town abandoned railway warehouse turned into a penguin washing and rehabilitation center.  | © Karen Anderson
If you take the Aquarium of the Pacific's Behind-the-Scenes tour, you'll pass by the bird quaratine room named in honor of Karen.  | © Hugh Ryono

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