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 these monogamous birds, though they do take striking photographs (see below).
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
9:10 Maid service arrives to clean pen
10:30 Shower and nap
1:00 Sardine smoothies served
2:00 Lunch, quick head massage with Peaceful Sleep (mosquito repellent)
2:30 Shower and nap
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 work and effort to imitate in an enclosed environment what they would do quite easily on their own with the right resources. As I worked I couldn’t help but think how sadly complicated rehabilitation work is. It would have been so much easier to just look after their habitat in the first place. They’re really beautiful birds but very much endangered. What else can you do, but try your best to get the ones that are left well again? It’s stressful for them and sometimes also for us, but it has to be done if these “small, plunging wedges” (spheniscus demersus) are to survive another century. And some of the birds need so, so much love to make things right.