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Saving a Species and Spending Christmas with Penguins

January 20 is Penguin Awareness Day. The following is a blog post by Sheri Hendricks, Animal Care Specialist at Shedd Aquarium, about her experience helping save African penguins from extinction.

A colony of endangered African penguins (Photo credit: Shedd Aquarium/Sheri Hendricks
A colony of endangered African penguins (Photo credit: Shedd Aquarium/Sheri Hendricks)

Most people spend Christmas with their families. I was lucky enough to spend it with penguins.

As a nationally recognized leader in rescue and rehabilitation, Shedd Aquarium has responded to animals in need for over two decades. I’m very lucky to be part of Shedd’s marine mammal team, an extraordinary group of dedicated individuals that has worked with partners across the globe to supply critical care to animals in need. One of these relationships is with Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), a leading marine-orientated non-profit organization that has treated more than 90,000 oiled, ill, injured or abandoned African penguins and other threatened seabirds since being established in 1968.

To help assist with the rehabilitation of hundreds of endangered African penguin (Spheniscus demersus), Shedd sends members of its marine mammals team to SANCCOB to care for the birds and prepare them to be re-released. When the opportunity presented itself in late November to be one of the many volunteer responders to this effort, I didn’t think twice about spending my holiday saving an endangered species.

Many of the stranded penguins had health issues including foot problems, lacerations or other illness, sometimes even broken wings or malaria. The birds needed all the help they could get, and our team was ready and able to provide the care needed so they could hopefully be released back into the wild. Working hand-in-hand with SANCCOB to care for the penguin chicks no two days were the same, but each day was inspiring, exhilarating and looked a little bit like this:

Shedd Animal Care Specialist , Sheri Hendricks works with an African penguin at SANCCOB (Photo credit: Shedd Aquarium/Sheri Hendricks)
Shedd Animal Care Specialist , Sheri Hendricks works with an African penguin at SANCCOB (Photo credit: Shedd Aquarium/Sheri Hendricks)

8 a.m. – Not unlike my days at Shedd, our mornings at SANCCOB started with a brief meeting of all volunteers to receive daily assignments and any other pertinent information. Also at this time, we collect and put on our gear for the day which includes arm guards, gloves, oil slickers and Crocs.

8:15 a.m. –An electrolyte and some medication/supplements are given to each bird in your assigned area. In any given “pen” (the areas where the penguins are housed depending on their needs), there can be between 60 and 90 birds! We clean the areas frequently throughout the day, including during this time when mats and crates are brought to a cleaning station to be rinsed off.

10 a.m. – The birds receive a fish feed, which are prepped according to the limits and guidelines assigned by SANCCOB’S veterinarian team and the pen supervisor.

12 p.m. – A formula feed of ground fish as well as vitamins and powders is given, again according to the observations of the veterinarian team and the pen supervisor. Much like humans, the diets are adjusted to the needs of each bird.

4 p.m. – More water and medication for the birds. At any point during the day, the volunteers have other activities and duties that need to get done, including adhering foot bandages, applying a “peaceful sleep” treatment where medication is rubbed on the heads of the penguin to deter mosquitos which can carry malaria, swimming time for penguins to strengthen them for release and, of course, lots of cleaning.

5 p.m. – Last formula feed, like earlier in the day. Once this is complete we finish up cleaning and head home. It’s about a 25 minute walk home, but thanks to some awesome volunteers who previously volunteered from Shedd, a trusty shared bike got me there in 10 minutes.

A colony of endangered African penguins (Photo credit: Shedd Aquarium/Sheri Hendricks)
A colony of endangered African penguins (Photo credit: Shedd Aquarium/Sheri Hendricks)

When I arrived back home after the holidays, and settled back in to my day-to-day of caring for Shedd’s Pacific white-sided dolphins and beluga whales, I couldn’t stop thinking about my experience in South Africa. When I saw one of our penguins on my first days back, I got emotional, it was a reminder that the hard work we put in to care for the penguins each day at Shedd helps us learn and grow, and apply that knowledge toward helping endangered animals where they need us most.

As we celebrate Penguin Awareness Day, it’s important to recognize that this collaboration with SANCCOB is essential in helping to save an endangered species. Being at SANCCOB and working with these birds everyday was a life changing experience. At Shedd we strive to connect our guests to the living world and inspire them to make a difference. To say that I’ve been inspired to make a difference is an understatement! Hopefully, by working together we will one day be able to stabilize the population of the wild African penguins.