Penguin Rehab

The Sounds of Penguin Morning Sex

Early in the morning, just before the volunteers and rehabbers begin to arrive, the African penguins stand outside their nesting box, point their beaks toward the heavens and sing a sweet serenade sounding something like this:


From what I understand, it’s an ecstatic display song, and despite having earned them the nickname “jackass,” penguins appear to be mostly sweet souls in the relationship department. When it comes to “long walks on the beach,” I’m pretty sure the African penguin invented it, and there’s nothing so heartwarming as watching a penguin couple waddle off into the distance very much in love. Perhaps I’m anthropomorphizing.

Birds that can’t be released stay at SANCCOB year-round, so some pretty solid relationships have developed, but not without their issues. If it’s quiet and you’re curious, most rehabbers will gladly tell you all the drama happening in home pen: how this one tried to steal that one’s mate and how that one’s contemplating his gender identity.

Even if I were passing through, though, I’d probably fall in love, if I were a penguin. There’s a sign at the entrance that jokingly claims the place is like a five-star hotel, and personally, I don’t think the description is that far off the mark.

Here’s a typical penguin schedule:

8:00   Welcome drink

8:30   Sauna

9:00   Swim

9:10   Maid service arrives to clean pen

10:00   Breakfast

10:30   Shower and nap

12:00   Swim

1:00   Sardine smoothies served

2:00   Lunch, quick head massage with Peaceful Sleep (mosquito repellent)

2:30   Shower and nap

3:30   Sauna

4:00   Cocktail hour, followed by another swim

5:00   Turn down service. Sardine smoothies served.

From a medical perspective, the drinks wash down daily meds; the sauna is actually a “nebulizer” that helps clear respiratory ailments; sardine smoothies bulk up underweight penguins and all the pool time tests feathers for waterproofing. But hey, tomato…potato… the day is what you make of it.


Unfortunately most penguins are pretty traumatized being away from the natural habitat, and it takes so, so much effort to imitate in an enclosed environment what they would do quite easily on their own with the right resources. Rehab work stresses the birds and often also the involved humans, and though it would have been much easier just to look after their habitat in the first place, saving what’s left of their population is all that can be done now if these “small, plunging wedges” (spheniscus demersus) are to lift themselves out of the endangered species list and survive another century. Some of the birds need a lot love to come right, and maybe also a table for two.

Fun fact: If ever you need to distinguish between the African penguin and its South American cousin, the Magellanic penguin, the African penguin has one black stripe across its chest; the Magellanic has two.