Yesterday was a very sad day at Penguins’ Rock as our team said goodbye to “Clare,” a three-year-old Gentoo Penguin.
This personable bird, the offspring of “Biscuit” and “Blue,” found a special place in the hearts of the Aquarium’s aviculturists, with whom she frequently would spend time in the exhibit’s backup area.
“Clare was a really calm, easy-going bird,” said senior aviculturist Loribeth Lee. “She did really well with target training, things like learning how to step onto the scale to be weighed. She was always right there willing to do it.
“But Clare didn’t always want fish for a reward. She wasn’t motivated by food, which is unusual for the Gentoos. Instead, she loved to have her beak scratched. So, she was very tactile. She would come step on the scale and all she wanted was a little scratch on the beak and that was perfect reinforcement for her.”
Clare stepping on a scale for Animal Trainer Holly Lutz
Clare also enjoyed enrichment activities, particularly painting with the other birds. “She was always willing to come back with us and paint,” Lee said. “She would always end up getting paint all over her and sometimes all over the walls, but she really enjoyed that form of enrichment.”
A large part of caring for penguins is simply devoting hours of each day to observing their behavior. Through this, staff, volunteers, and the Aquarium’s veterinarian come to know each individual’s behavioral traits.
“We spend a lot of time each day observing our birds, so we know what’s normal,” said Lee. “When we notice behavior that’s not normal, we immediately begin to take a closer look to try and determine what’s going on. In Clare’s case, we noticed a couple of weeks ago that she wasn’t as excited to see us.”
When Clare began acting differently, the entire team sprang into action by treating her immediately for Aspergillosis.
Aspergillus is a fungus that is found almost everywhere on the planet. Birds, especially penguins, are particularly susceptible to this fungus which can cause an infection called Aspergillosis. It is the number one health concern for any zoo or aquarium with penguins. That’s why staff and volunteers work tirelessly to make sure the exhibit is safe and clean for the penguins and why there are stringent protocols for sanitizing anything that goes into the exhibit.
In some ways, Asper - short for Aspergillosis - is sneaky. Most birds test positive for exposure to Aspergillus (the fungus), but they aren’t sick. If a bird encounters a stressful situation, they can become sick quickly. But not always.
Penguins, like humans, are individuals with variations in their immune systems and the ability to deal with attacks from bacteria and viruses. One person with the flu might get well without treatment, another may need acute treatment. For others, the flu can be fatal. Asper can effect a penguin’s joints or invade the respiratory system, which was the case with Clare.
But, unlike the flu, Asper is not contagious. If one bird falls ill, there’s no threat to the others.
Several years ago another penguin at Penguins’ Rock, “Noodle,” had an Asper flare-up that affected her joints. The Aquarium’s team was able to treat her with medication, and she’s as feisty as ever today.
“The fungus Aspergillus is always present, so every time we perform their semi-annual physicals, we’re going to see a small indicator of exposure to Aspergillus (the fungus) on their blood test,” said Lee. “If that number is too high, we immediately put them on medication to bolster their immune system. But sometimes stress can cause a flare-up of the disease Aspergillosis.”
Since April, the residents of Penguins’ Rock have been engaged in their annual nesting and breeding season. This time of year is naturally more stressful for penguins, Lee said.
“In Clare’s case, we’re assuming that the breeding season was stressful enough to cause her flare-up,” she said. “When we noticed, a couple of weeks ago, that Clare wasn’t as excited to see us, we started her on a treatment plan for Asper even before we got the blood tests back that confirmed that she was battling Aspergillosis.”
The team continued to aggressively treat Clare. At first, she responded well, but her health rapidly declined in the past two days.
Yesterday it was time to make a difficult decision.
Lee expressed the loss that the entire team is feeling today. “We try not to form bonds with the animals in our care, but you can’t help it. We’re here every day caring for them and they become a part of you. Letting go is not an easy thing to do, even though we know it was the most humane thing to do for Clare.”
Clare is gone, but she is definitely not forgotten, she concluded.
Avicuturist Loribeth Lee holding Clare at several weeks old
"She’s definitely going to be missed. We loved her and she will always have a place in our hearts.”