When the Penguins’ Rock exhibit opened in 2007, two Gentoos were easily recognizable: Zeus and Poncho. Even if they weren’t wearing flipper bands (which allow for quick identification), these two guys stood out from the rest of the colony because of their size and stature.
“Zeus was a big boy, but he was a pretty calm bird,” says senior aviculuturist Loribeth Lee. “He was a really easy bird to feed. He wasn’t particular in how he took his fish, unlike many of the birds. Zeus would just take the fish and gobble them down. He always had a huge appetite.”
And when it came to nesting and breeding season, that gentle demeanor continued on even though penguins like to squabble at that time of year.
“Zeus and Pebbles flew under the radar,” Lee adds. “They weren’t the birds causing all of the drama during breeding season.”
Lee has been working with the Aquarium’s penguins for a decade. When you care for animals on a daily basis, whether that’s a dog, cat, fish or penguins, you really get to know their personalities and behaviors. And, you keep an extra eye out for the older animals as they often require a little extra TLC.
Zeus began showing signs of aging a few months ago. Hatched in 1994, he was not only one of the older birds at the Aquarium, according to records kept by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Zeus was older than most of the Gentoo Penguins in human care in North America. Lee says a 20-year-old Gentoo in the wild is rare.
So when Zeus began having challenges getting back on land after swimming with the other penguins, the team began doing what they could to help him out. He was moved into a backup space with his long-time mate Pebbles during the overnight hours when staff wouldn’t be around to assist him out of the water. “They had kind of their own private suite in the backup space,” says Lee. “He would go out every morning for about two hours and mingle with the other birds and swim around.”
Zeus was also dealing with a fungal infection. In spite of aggressive treatment, he was not able to overcome this illness due to his advanced age. But over the past eight weeks, Zeus was surprisingly bright and active. “He remained interactive with the staff and he never lost his hearty appetite,” says Dave Collins, the Aquarium’s director of forests and animal behavior. “We knew he was declining, but he never signaled to us that he was ever in any discomfort to the point we felt he was in any pain.”
So when Zeus died recently, Lee had mixed feelings. She was sad for the loss, but relieved that he slipped away peacefully after a long life.
Days like this are difficult, but the reality is the Aquarium’s penguin care team will have to face these circumstances again in the future. Gentoo Penguin “Peep” is currently 26-years-old. Poncho, Biscuit, and Blue are 24.
“We love these guys and care for them every day,” Lee says. “It’s hard to think about because animals get old and they don’t live forever. So we have to enjoy them as long as we can and do our best to care for them and make sure they are comfortable as they get older.”