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Nashville Zoo Keeper Travels to South Africa to Help Endangered Penguins

In late November, Alison Day, Ambassador Animal Keeper, traveled 8,300 miles to Cape Town, South Africa, to volunteer at the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB). As part of SANCCOB’s keeper exchange program, Day was able to care for the close to 200 birds at the facility and rehabilitate them, so they were prepared to return to their colonies.

SANCCOB is a registered non-profit organization whose primary objective is to reverse the decline of seabird populations through the rescue, rehabilitation and release of ill, injured, abandoned and oiled seabirds – especially endangered species like the African penguin. The African penguin is a featured Association of Zoos and Aquariums SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) species. The African Penguins have seen a 90% population decline since the early 1900s because of the lack of food sources, habitat destruction and climate change.

Day worked with staff and other international volunteers to care for the endangered South African penguins that had injuries from boat propellers and seals, one of their predators. SANCCOB rehabilitates about 2,500 birds per year, 1,500 which are penguins.

Her day-to-day routine would consist of cleaning the bird pens, washing dishes, feeding the penguins their fish and formula, administering medication and assisting with veterinary exams.

“We had different feeding schedules for the birds depending on the age and health of each bird,” Day said. “Even though the staff at SANCCOB were constantly training volunteers and dealing with stressful situations, they all came together for one common goal: to get these birds to a point where they could go back to the wild.”

Day also worked with many penguin chicks that were abandoned by their parents; a common occurrence in this species. Both male and female go through catastrophic molting, although sometimes not at the same time, after the hatching of a chick. Catastrophic molting means they lose all of their feathers so they can grow waterproof ones. This molting process, which can last about one month, leaves the chicks sometimes starving to death because the parents cannot safely retrieve food from the ocean without feathers.  This is where SANCCOB steps in.

“The ones that I made the biggest connection with were some of the younger chicks,” Day said. “I worked with them most of the time. They still had some down feathers on them, so they were really young. Every day they would start off their chorus of cries wanting food. They were all sweet little birds.”

Volunteers from SANCCOB and park rangers are trained to learn how to identify a bird in need. They find most of the birds at nearby beaches, such as Robben Island, the island which Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, Betty’s Bay and Boulders Beach.

Within the last few days of her trip, Day was able to experience something she had been waiting for the entire trip.

“Getting to see the park rangers put the nine penguins back on Boulders Beach, and them going right over to the colony and being in their natural habitat was really rewarding because it meant I was doing something to save this species,” Day said. “I’ve been wanting to directly help them for a while.”

Nashville Zoo also participates in conservation projects for many species that don’t live here.

“Even though we don't have African penguins now, and may not have them very soon, we are still honored to be helping protect yet another species in need of conservation action,” said Jacqueline Menish, curator of Behavioral Husbandry.

SANCCOB also educates the local public, many of whom don’t know that there are even penguins native to Africa. Although, the United States is thousands of miles away from penguins, Day said there are still ways to protect them.

“You can still help by recycling to prevent ocean waste, buying sustainable seafood and donating to organizations like SANCCOB,” Day said. “To quote a sign I saw in Cape Town, “If one person can make a difference, imagine what seven billion of us can do.”

Posted by Nashville Zoo at 9:20 AM