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You can lead a penguin to water, but can you make him swim?

Maryland Zoo keepers act as coaches for newborns in their efforts to help save an endangered African species.

December 04, 2011|By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun
  • A 6-week-old African penguin is weighed before his introduction to swimming at the Maryland Zoo.
A 6-week-old African penguin is weighed before his introduction to swimming… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)

When it comes to water, penguins aren't naturals.

"Some of them are terrified," says Bethany Wlaz, a keeper at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

So each time African penguins are born into the zoo's breeding program for the endangered birds, someone like Wlaz becomes their swimming coach. But first comes the introduction to being wet.

Soft as a cotton ball and about the size of a roasted chicken, Male One — hatched on Oct. 12 — is lowered into a stainless steel sink by Wlaz and Betty Dipple, another animal keeper.

"Araaah," the bird protests, as a stream of lukewarm water washes over its head and flippers. "Araaah."

Back and belly, tail feathers and webbed feet, nothing escapes the faucet. Five minutes later, the penguin's first bath is in the can.

While Male One is being dried and wrapped in a fluffy towel, Male Two — four days younger — gets the same treatment and emits a similar donkey-like bray. Puffs of gray down float in the air.

"They're getting the full salon service," Wlaz says.

Doting on African penguins has been a Maryland Zoo specialty for more than three decades. With 55 to 65 birds living at the moat-enclosed area known as Rock Island, the zoo has one of the largest breeding colonies in the country. Another major colony is at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

The work is of global importance because African penguins, found only along the southern shore and islands of Africa, are teetering on the edge of extinction. Their numbers have declined from as many as 4 million in the early 1900s to 60,000 in 2010, according to the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds. Fewer than half of them are estimated to be breeding pairs.

African penguin eggs were targeted up until the 1960s by people who considered them a delicacy and scooped them up by the millions. The penguins' habitat has been destroyed by commerce and oil spills, and overfishing and climate change have depleted their food, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

The Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums has developed a species survival plan to map out breeding to ensure a strong genetic pool while scientists and conservation groups try to stabilize the population. The Maryland Zoo keeps breeding pairs on hand and distributes other penguins to zoos for display or breeding.

The parents of Male One and Male Two — proper names are coming, zoo officials promise — came to Baltimore a year ago. The father hailed from Tampa and the mother from Memphis. They quickly became a family of four, with the newborns spending three weeks with their parents before keepers took over the domestic duties.

"It's hard to have an entirely bad day when you're around penguins," Dipple says as she slides a chunk of squid into the gaping black beak of Male One.

The chicks weigh 4.9 pounds and 3.8 pounds. When fully grown right around Christmas, they'll be 23 to 25 inches tall, will weigh about 8 pounds and will be fully decked out in black-and-white plumage.

Once Male One and Male Two get the hang of being wet, the keepers will fill a small pool halfway with water and shoo the birds in. This march of the penguins will happen three times a day, every day, until the lessons take.

"For each bird, it will click at a different point," Wlaz said. "Some we'll put in and they'll take to it. Some will run and jump out like it's molten lava. One day they realize that it's the coolest thing in the world and they start diving and swimming, and then it's pretty much impossible to get them out."

Soon, they may have siblings. The parents have produced another clutch, and four other penguin pairs are expected to breed this season.

That's a lot of swimming lessons.

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