Kurt Heizmann is used to working with healthy penguins. That is not what he found on his recent trip to South Africa.
A marine mammal trainer at Shedd Aquarium, Heizmann returned to Chicago last month after three weeks evaluating and treating penguin chicks stranded along the South African coast. Heizmann was one of three members from Shedd’s Animal Response Team to participate in an annual rescue mission of endangered African penguins from December to January.
The effort is organized by the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), a nonprofit working to reverse the decline of seabird populations.
“At Shedd, all of our animals are in great health, so to see animals on the other side of that spectrum is definitely heartbreaking,” Heizmann said. “A lot of the birds coming in to SANCCOB are abandoned chicks.”
The strandings are caused by climate-related disruptions to penguins’ feather-changing process, called moulting, during which adult penguins are unable to go into the cold ocean to hunt for fish. As a result, penguin chicks that hatch late in the year are often left behind and face the risk of starvation.
Although Shedd has been participating in animal response programs for more than 50 years, the African penguin rescue mission is of particular significance.
Penguins are considered an indicator species, one that can provide insight into the health of other animals in the ocean. Because of their relatively high status within the marine food chain, scientists can study penguins to learn about changes among other species that might otherwise go unnoticed.
“It’s kind of a chain reaction that makes it up to the top of the ecosystem,” Heizmann said.
For the penguins living off the coast of South Africa, increasing ocean temperatures have pushed their food sources away from the coast, requiring adult penguins to swim farther into the ocean, Heizmann said. The change has thrown off penguins’ moulting process, leaving many chicks hungry or abandoned.
Other penguins treated at SANCCOB have been affected by illness, oil spills or injuries as a result of human activity, including overfishing and plastic pollution, according to Shedd’s website.
Almost 500 abandoned African penguin chicks were admitted to SANCCOB this year. The species has experienced rapid population decline over the past century, dropping from 1 million breeding pairs to an estimated 20,000-25,000, a result of commercial fishing and changes in prey populations, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“This trend currently shows no sign of reversing, and immediate conservation action is required to prevent further declines,” the organization said on its website.
The species was classified as endangered in 2010, four years after the start of SANCCOB’s Chick Bolstering Project, which brings together Shedd and other partner organizations to hand-rear rescued penguin chicks and release them back into the wild.
Since 2006, SANCCOB has rescued and rehabilitated more than 4,000 chicks.
The rescue process starts with wildlife observers stationed along the South African coast who spot vulnerable penguins and bring them to SANCCOB, where experts like Heizmann conduct an initial exam – a penguin physical of sorts – checking for abrasions or injuries and documenting their age, condition and other features.
The chicks are kept in temperature-controlled habits and fed multiple times a day. They get water, frozen sardines and what Heizmann called a “fish smoothie.”
“It’s kind of like a fishy milk that has nutrients for the birds but also has [other] vitamins,” he said.
For several weeks, the penguins go through regular checkups until they reach fledgling age, which is about three months. If deemed healthy, the chicks are released back into the wild in one of three established penguin colonies off the South African coast.
The penguins are also given a microchip, allowing experts to continue monitoring their health.
“On the [release] day, all that hard work of getting those animals [healthy] and releasing them back out into the wild just really makes all the effort worthwhile,” Heizmann said.
For Heizmann and other experts, the work is busy: When the chicks arrive, a team of just two to three workers is responsible for 160 birds at a time.
Heizmann said experts spend the most time tending to newly arrived birds.
“We try to be as hands-off as possible with them because we don’t want them to become [attached] to us,” he said. “We try to limit the human interaction. It’s very businesslike. It’s different than when we work with the animals at Shedd because here, we try to build relationships with all the animals we have, get them to trust us.”
Shedd has sent experts to SANCCOB for the past five years, though this was Heizmann’s first time participating. Shedd trainer Laura Reichert and animal care specialist Tracy Smith also went to South Africa for this winter’s rescue mission.
Shedd’s staff has experience with penguins similar to those living off South Africa. The aquarium has more than 30 penguins representing two of the 17 penguin species: rockhopper and Magellanic. The latter is a South American penguin and relative of the African penguin.
Shedd formalized its rescue efforts last year by creating an official Animal Response Team that includes animal care specialists, research biologists and other clinically trained staff who aid in rescue and rehabilitation efforts.
Sept. 29: The Lincoln Park Zoo gave journalists a sneak peek of the new African penguin exhibit, which aims to replicate the birds' natural habitat in southern Africa.
April 25: Patients at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago unveiled the new name for the Shedd Aquarium’s rockhopper penguin chick on Monday.
Feb. 17, 2016: A 10-week-old sea otter pup is rehabilitating and settling into her new home at the Shedd Aquarium after being rescued in California last month.