Bite Me (Not Really)
So learning to force feed a penguin is kind of like learning to ride a rodeo bull, except it may also include projectile fish and your fingers getting chomped on. Penguins may look cute and cuddly, but try to secure their head and the story changes entirely. Penguin 336 was like a warrior with wings.
The first really aggressive penguin I successfully subdued was number 118, who arrived at rehab with wounds to the back and abdomen and lacerations on the foot, likely due to a seal attack. The event concerning me holding onto this highly peeved, pain-ridden penguin long enough to hand him to a supervisor went down with as much drama and danger as an averagely-sized human wrestling a crocodile. In the hours that followed, every time he saw me, he would hiss and wave his head like a cobra, looking more annoyed than usual.
That being said, one does not continuously lunge, wrestle, retreat and invoke the sweet mother of Happy Feet without learning a few tips on how to avoid getting bitten. Here’s my experience:
Penguin Handling 101: How not to get bitten
Just kidding. You will get bitten. So much so that you will start to see adult penguins only as a really big beak attached to a writing body of aggression.
NB: Baby penguins are still cute and cuddly.
People with years of experience do, however, get bitten much less. Their hand muscles are strong enough to calm the bird, and their skin is tough from all the pecks. Among newbies, invisible cuts are talked about like they’re major battle wounds.
On the other hand, real cuts tend to be hidden because you don’t want friends to know you were beaten up by a penguin.
Said: “Oh all these bruises?” I wrestled a lion to save a dying wildebeest.”
Reality: A bird no taller than your knee pecked at your arm guard.
In all fairness, I’d probably bite too, if I were as short as a tree stump. Plus, if the rehabber incorrectly administers fluids or formula while tubing, the bird drowns to death in minutes (no pressure), which is enough to cause any number of trust issues when someone’s sticking a pipe down your throat. Not to mention aggressive penguins have a better chance at survival in the wild, so in a weird way one actually learns to appreciate the biting as a sign of hope for these endangered birds.
As previously mentioned though, younger penguins retain most of their cuteness regardless of their circumstances. When a large release of adults saw Pen Three reduced mostly to chicks and blues, I could not have asked for a more beautiful pen to help with. Unlike the adults with their savage (yet much respected) defensiveness, when handled these penguins just sort of shrug like, “Okay, I guess I’m being picked up now.” Even 118 lost some of his edge under their influence (though that may also have been the result of a recent surgery and a healed foot).
Still, young penguins have their own issues. The only thing young penguins really concern themselves with is food, so much so that they can often be heard begging for fish, even after they’ve been fed. And, in a pen chock-full of lovely, free feeding penguins, considerable chaos always ensued at the first hint of fish (An adorable mob attacked me on more than one occasion).
First food and then later safety and courtship, like most animals an increase in things to worry about is part of growing up penguin. And the time really goes. One day you’re mixing formula for them in the CRU and the next they’re taking their first swim off the South African coast, never to be noticed again. But I am getting ahead of myself. There are a few other birds worth meeting before we say goodbye.