Penguin Rehab

Saying Goodbye

It’s a strange feeling, holding a bird when it’s euthanized. The life in your hands doesn’t break with impactful finality like a cup or a vase would; it falls apart slowly and gracefully, as if it’s melting away.

Many endangered species seem to die in a similar manner to the bird… quietly slipping away with a perceived elegance that makes it difficult to take note of its permanence. We forget death is a hungry beast; what slides easily down the throat takes considerable effort to vomit up again, if vomiting can be induced at all.

And snatching birds from the jaws of death really is exhausting work. Three days after I said my last goodbye, I would hold a doctor’s note in my hand, trying to decide if I really wanted to use it and be admitted to hospital. I had contracted a severe case of the flu and was scared out of my mind. Naturally dramatic and physically drained, at the time it had felt like death was looking to trade.

But nature can be strangely hopeful sometimes. After whaling ceased at Stony Point in 1930, African penguins adopted the abandoned whaling station in Betty’s Bay as one of only two breeding grounds in South Africa (the other being Boulders Beach). More than eighty years later, I would stand on the slanted cement platform where dead whales had once lain, watching six little penguins waddle back into the sea.

The infamous Cape Cormorant 138, my favorite Hartlaub’s Gull 314, the Southern Giant Petrel, the Oystercatcher and the Swift Terns who had had the board meeting also returned to the wild before my last day at the center. Penguin 118 from Bite Me (Not Really) was upgraded to an hour swimmer with rumors of his imminent release circulating.

The “bony and frail” penguin from Table for Two had improved enough to be taken from the ICU, while the gannets from the photo in Cocktail Hour had both happy and sad fates. The older one at the back of the picture was released. The younger one in the foreground was euthanized on account of a damaged leg that was not healing.

‘Warrior with wings’ 336 moved back to Home Pen with Rocky, Squee and other friends. He turned out to be an arrested moulter, which means he stopped moulting halfway between juvenile and adult and could not be released. Despite his special appearance, he had a girlfriend by my last day there and was busy digging a nest for her. I gather he was either unimpressed by the provided nesting boxes or just overenthusiastic at his soon-to-be mating potential. One can only hope Moby did not give him the business card of the manic penguin bodyguard he had employed, who I’d since learned was named String. Penguins can be very protective of their eggs.

Speaking of which, the long and colorful journey from egg to adult is well worth knowing for penguin watching. Here’s the informative aside you never knew you needed:

How to Grow up Penguin

Level 1. Eggs hatch into chicks: Characterised by fluffy cuteness and incessant whining for food. Without a waterproof coat, the chick is completely dependent on its parents for food.

Level 2. Chicks moult into Blues: Named for the blueish tint to its coat, the blue penguin is now waterproof and can fish for itself.

Level 3. Blues grow into Juveniles: With the strength of an adult and all the angst of an adolescent, these penguin teenagers represent some of the most difficult penguins to work with. Toward the end of their time as a juvenile, this penguin will gorge itself on fish in preparation for its moult into adulthood, during which time it cannot go into the sea to hunt.

Level 4. Juveniles moult into Adults: Once the moult is complete the adult penguin will have the waterproof, black and white coat for which the penguin is most well known, which will be replaced with annual moults for the rest of its life. The adult is now ready to mate, hunt and do all things penguin.

The six penguins returned to the wild during my release trip were all blues. I don’t remember any in particular except the ever-so-cute hunchback penguin 1091; she was responsible for a considerable number of flying fish when I was learning to feed.

As they left, no visible sign remained to show the penguin ever came through the center, apart from a temporary ink stain on the stomach that would last a few weeks. If I were to meet 118 or 1091 again, there would be no acknowledgment of any of the previous weeks’ events; I am no more a penguin whisperer now than the average tourist, watching at a respectable distance like everyone else.

Still, the world feels a little less lonely knowing the birds are getting on with their lives as I get on with mine. When I see an African penguin on the beach or in an aquarium, I can’t help but smile and rub the faint scar on my finger, hopeful that despite all the plastic, predators, illnesses and oil spills attempting to drive it out of existence, this small, feisty fish of a bird will somehow find a way.

The African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) is classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Information on its conservation status can be found here.