ORCA received a call from the downtown Lima police station stating that they had a penguin in custody. Her story was that she was found in someone’s house and handed in to the police, where she was kept in a form of penguin prison until the police could figure out what to do with her. Her true background story isn’t known, she may have been caught as a pet or for the meat trade or just an accidental fishing catch, however she was a good weight so she must not have been harmed. If ORCA hadn’t agreed to break her out of prison she would have been sent to a zoo, or if the zoo didn’t have room her, her future would have been very bleak. Her name became Poppy and she arrived on Thursday evening, being put to bed in a high up kennel to resemble the caves that young penguins are raised in.
Poppy the penguin is a roughly 3 month old Humboldt penguin (Spheniscus humboldti), found only off the coasts of Peru and Chile. Humboldts keep their young in caves, preferably amongst guano, and both parents take care of the young for 70-90 days, meaning she hadn’t been on her own for very long. Humboldt penguins grow between 56-66cms in height and weigh up to 5kgs. They have a distinctive black horseshoe band on their front and pink from their eye to their beak but because Poppy was a juvenile she hadn’t developed her adult moult yet. This species is highly influenced by the cold, nutrient rich waters of the Humboldt Current flowing from Antarctica, providing a productive area for plankton, krill and thus increasing fish abundance. Their main diet is small fish such as anchovies and sardines which they will swallow whole. The current population of the Humboldt Penguin is estimated to be between 3,300 and 12,000 individuals, with the IUCN listing them as threatened.
The Humboldt penguin used to be highly abundant but was first threatened by the mining of guano deposits for fertilisers, drastically reducing their numbers. Since then the species has seen large population size fluctuations. One natural threat to the species is the effects of El Niño, where the cold, nutrient rich waters are reduced, thus causing a decline in the number of fish species and therefore the penguins. The 1982-83 El Niño reduced the population from approximately 20,000 individuals to only 5,500. Although the numbers steadily rose again the 1997-98 El Niño also caused another decline to only 3,300 Humboldt penguins. Humans still cause an ongoing threat towards the species, with penguins becoming caught in commercial fishing nets, oil pollution, for human consumption, the pet trade or just a decrease in fish due to the increasing numbers of fishermen, leading to starvation. Penguins can lose their body weight very quickly if they don’t eat adequately, therefore we knew Poppy had been eating. Not only does their body weight decline quickly but so does their appetite – leading to the Penguins becoming unable to eat anything, which is a problem with receiving starved penguins in rehabilitation.
ORCA normally receives around 7 penguins a year, most brought to the house directly by people and often their appetites have decreased too much already that they develop other problems and sadly cannot be rehabilitated successfully. Birds are very sensitive and need to be given the upmost care. Another rehabilitation consideration is that penguins harbour diseases and parasites that can be easily transmitted to sea-lions. With 3 sea-lions currently in rehabilitation, we had to ensure everything was completely segregated, meaning separate cleaning tools, separate locations and even different clothes whether you were working with the penguin or the sea-lions.
The sensitivity of penguins became very obvious with Poppy on her first full day. We had constructed an indoor and an outdoor enclosure for her – complete with a paddling pool to keep cool. Penguins thermo-regulate through their feet and therefore need to soak them regularly to cool down. It is currently summer so the temperatures reach 26C most days with a strong sun. After moving her to her outdoor enclosure she fed well then resumed what penguins spend the majority of their day doing – not a lot, generally staying in the same place and only moving to excrete in a new location. There were signs of acid in her excrements, however we concluded it was due to her not feeding the day before and the stress of being in “prison”.
After an hour, she began to overheat very dramatically – signs of this are breathing through the beak, feet going from pale to red and lying down whilst breathing through the mouth. Poppy was displaying all these signs but after placing her standing in the pool she cooled down and resumed her calm disposition. Whilst with us she would tend to overheat very quickly, this may have been a sign of an infection, therefore she was treated with a set of antibiotics to help her if this was the case, or it may just have been that not being around other penguins or in a strange environment she couldn’t behave naturally and cool herself down as normal. When it became too hot she was moved to her indoor enclosure.
At night we moved her into the kennel she’d previously been in. However we then found her displaying the overheating symptoms again, but this time she was not overheating. She looked very stressed which is not normal considering Humboldt penguins spend a large amount of their time in warm and small enclosed dens. We don’t know what had happened in her past encounter with humans therefore we had to conclude it was an anxiety attack – she’d been traumatised in some way. We were sure this was the answer and not an illness because when placed back into her indoor inclosure she was much more calm, so we decided to keep her there overnight. She still looked slightly stressed but exhausted more than anything – this penguin had been through a lot these few days! I’d become very attached to Poppy and took her as my responsibility, so being a worried carer I woke several times throughout the night to go check on her and make sure she was ok. To my delight in my half-awake state she was always standing there completely fine and resting – looking much less stressed the more I checked up on her.
Saturday morning started with a similar routine – this time moving her to the pool every hour just incase, to keep her body at a regular temperature. Because we deemed her healthy but observed her obvious anxiety at various aspects of captivity, we wanted to return her as soon as possible because penguins should not be kept in isolation, especially not for prolonged periods of time. Her appetite was still very good, therefore in the afternoon we took her to the beach to carry out behavioural tests to see if she was ready for release. A large crowd formed but she wasn’t fazed and this became an opportunity for people to be made aware of ORCA and the rehabilitation procedures. Poppy showed signs of really wanting to return to the ocean, she’d try to dive into the rock pool we were examining her in, she ate a fish by herself in the water and was climbing the rocks – meaning she was ready for release. We couldn’t let her go there and then because at South beach at San Bartolo there are many rocks, a strong tide, many people and boats and more importantly, no penguins nearby, so we took her back to the marine mammal centre and organised the transportation for her release the next day.
South of San Bartolo is playa Asia where Isla Asia is located. Here is a large Humboldt penguin colony, where they live in close proximity to Pelicans (Pelecanus thagus) Cormorants (Phalacrocorax brasilianus and Phalacrocorax gaimardi) and the South American Sea-lion (Otaria flavescens). Unlike in other parts of the world where penguins fall prey to sea-lions, here they live and feed in the same areas with no problems. Placed in the penguin backpack and kept on my front we climbed onto the back of the police jet ski and headed out to the island where we incredibly got to see the species of animals we’d been rescuing living in their natural environments. As we got closer to the island, Poppy became more mobile, trying to escape from the bag – she was ready to return to the ocean! She was released in a good location near many others and began to swim around successfully. We watched her swim off, hopefully to go join the others and carry out a very normal and happy life. We have all the belief behind Poppy becoming a successful adult Humboldt penguin!
As for us, we had to dismantle her enclosures and disinfect everything she’d touched to protect our other inhabitants, but only after we got the call that another sea-lion had stranded nearby, therefore we went straight to rescue the next animal in need, a reminder that currently there is a crisis and there will always be another animal that needs ORCA’s help, so hopefully they can all have the positive outcome that Poppy had.