BY MARY GOFEN
For endangered animals in the wild, it’s nice to have the Shedd Aquarium on your side.
Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium has a designated team of animal responders who help marine animals in need around the globe. This winter, three members of Shedd’s Animal Response Team are stationed in South Africa to care for an endangered colony of penguins.
The colony is home to hundreds of penguin chicks that have been abandoned by their parents. Other penguins in need are ill, injured, or covered in oil from polluted waters.
In partnership with the Southern African Conservation for Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), the Shedd team’s mission is to rescue, rehabilitate, and release the penguins back into the ocean so that they have another chance at life.
Kurt Heizmann is one of Shedd’s three Animal Response Team members in Cape Town: “We see some of these birds in the worst of conditions, and it’s really, really sad. At Shedd, we have amazing animal care, and all our animals are in great health. So, to see animals on the other side of that spectrum is definitely heartbreaking.”
Hundreds of chicks in the colony have been abandoned by their parents. The reason has to do with climate change, Heizmann says. Due to warmer temperatures, adult penguins are starting to molt earlier in the year, and early molting collides with hatching season. (Molting is the process by which penguins shed their old feathers and grow new ones.)
“Some of the chicks are being born when the [molting] parents can’t hunt for food,” says Shedd’s Director of Communications, Nicole Minadeo, who recently returned from South Africa. “A penguin’s full set of feathers is like a swimsuit that protects it against the cold water.”
At the end of their three-week molt, the adult penguins have lost nearly half their body weight and must return to sea for several weeks to replenish fat stores and regain their health. The parents have no choice but to leave behind chicks and unhatched eggs.
That’s where Shedd workers step in. The abandoned chicks are young, scrappy, and hungry. The Shedd is trying to give them their best shot at survival.
The team works 15-hour days, seven days a week, for several weeks incubating eggs until they hatch, and feeding, cleaning, and administering medicine to the chicks and adults. Rehabilitation typically takes four to six weeks and concludes when the chicks weigh about six pounds and have replaced their soft, downy baby feathers with ones that are waterproof and insulating.
When they are ready, the penguins are released into the wild.
“Release Day” is a very emotional time, says Minadeo. “It’s amazing and a privilege to be able to see the chicks get healthy and get back to a state where they can be returned to their colonies in the ocean…. Everyone gathers to watch in anticipation as the teams tip the boxes and the penguins waddle back into the water. Tears of hope and joy!”
The SANCCOB team members agree. “One of the first things the chicks do is they look up to the sky above them. They’ve never seen a blue open sky before. They’ve only been under shade…. It’s so special because we set out to make the bird better and then put it back in its natural environment. It really fills my heart with joy when I can put that bird back in the ocean,” says Romy Klusener.
Soon, the last of the Shedd’s Animal Response Team in South Africa will return to Chicago and resume work here at the aquarium until needed for the next project overseas. But efforts to preserve and protect animals and the environment are endless. So the Shedd is thinking of ways to expand its reach. To this end, the Shedd recently launched a national program called “NextGen Animal Responders.”
For the program launch, the Shedd invited a class of fifth grade students to the aquarium for a special session last week. Students took part in a science experiment and heard about ways the Animal Responders have been helping the African penguins.
A highlight for many students was a guest appearance by Georgia, one of Shedd’s Magellanic penguins. The students huddled together for a close-up view.
Bridget Coughlin, the Shedd’s president and CEO, unwraps the students’ fascination with penguins. “They are so endearing and awkward on land and so graceful and athletic in the water,” she says.
Coughlin hopes the NextGen program will help “build care and compassion for animals and extract curiosity and interest” from the students. A bonus would be students choosing careers in marine biology and wildlife conservation.
At the end of the session, Coughlin deputized the fifth graders as the nation’s first group of NextGen Animal Responders. And she sent them off with instructions on what they can do in their everyday lives to help: use recyclable water bottles, eat locally-sourced fish, and reduce single-use plastic.
The Shedd believes younger children also play an important role in animal care and conservation, and it has designed certain exhibits and activities, such as the Polar Play Zone, with that in mind.
But one of the wonderful and amazing aspects of the Shedd is how so many of its exhibits appeal to all ages, from the young to young at heart. And this explains why it is such a popular destination for grandparents and grandchildren, great aunts and uncles, cousins and siblings, and everyone in between.
The Shedd seems to have something for everyone. Kids especially rave about the Shedd experience.
Colin Matthews, a 9-year-old boy from Dallas: “I liked to learn that so many animals are rescued by the Shedd Aquarium, like the blind seal and the sea turtle who had a broken shell. The Shedd made them a happy and safe home.”
Colin’s younger sister, Clara, age 3, added, “I loved touching the sea stars and watching dolphins under the water.”
Oliver York, age 7, of Washington DC: “I loved the dolphin show where they all jumped out of the water together. And the best part was the dog the Shedd rescued who learned to do tricks like the dolphins.”
But it was neither dolphins nor dogs that left a lasting impression on Oliver’s brother, Henry, age 4: “I liked the jumping, diving, and waddling penguins!”
Shedd’s Coughlin would agree and no doubt hopes that some of these young Shedd visitors will one day become NextGen Animal Responders.
Photo credit: Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez