Saving African Penguins in South Africa

A Como Zoo Aquatics Keeper brings her Expertise to Wild Penguin Conservation

A veteran aquatics keeper at Como Zoo, Kelley Dinsmore knows African penguins so well that she bought plenty of Band-Aids before flying to Cape Town, South Africa for a two-week volunteer stint with South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB). (Dinsmore shown with a recovering chick above.)

What she didn’t know was how quickly she’d go through her first aid kit.

“The black-footed penguins we have here at Como Zoo will definitely bite, but their wild counterparts are even feistier,” says Dinsmore, who worked with a SANCCOB project that collects and protects African penguins, adults and chicks, that are injured, ill or have been abandoned.

“I went through two boxes right away—but it was definitely worth it.”

With fewer than 25,000 breeding pairs left, African penguin populations are on the verge of collapse due to overfishing, development, and ecosystem changes.

“One of the big issues is the adults are molting at inappropriate times of the year, so the chicks are being hatched while both parents are molting, and unable to hunt fish and feed their offspring,” Dinsmore explains, noting that SANCCOB has successfully rehabilitated and released more than 5,000 penguin chicks back to the wild. With expertise caring for Como Zoo’s penguins and puffins, keepers like Dinsmore can be valuable volunteers for the effort, which can include tube-feeding very young chicks, and dosing them with a solution called Darrows—a concoction she describes as “Gatorade for sea birds.”

For Dinsmore, the high point of the trip was traveling two and a half hours from Cape Town to the Stony Point Colony, and watching as Penguin #455—an energetic adult called “Patrick” who’d given Dinsmore a few cuts and bruises—made a fast dash for the ocean. Now that she’s back at Como, she encourages visitors to do their part to help penguins like him survive: “One simple way is to put the Seafood Watch app on your smart phone so you can make sure that you’re supporting and promoting sustainable fisheries when you’re shopping or going out to eat. You can help all sea life by making better choices.”

Welcome to the Colony

Como Zoo’s African penguins just welcomed three new faces to the colony this season—Boo, Vern, and Amahle (shown in order). Before they were introduced to their new neighbors, the trio spent time  behind the scenes in Como’s Aquatic Animals building getting to know their new surroundings, while Como’s keepers got to know them.

“Boo is very skittish, and afraid of everything. That’s how she got the name ‘Boo’,” says keeper Kelley Dinsmore. “Vern is just dapper—he’s a really good looking penguin.” Meanwhile Amahle (pronounced “A-ma-she”) —whose name means “the beautiful one” in Zulu—is giving Cupid a run for most personable penguin in the colony. “She’s very bossy, she’s the first one to get her fish, and when there’s competition, she stands her ground.”

Dinsmore says that her Conservation Champions experience in 2018 has turned out to be especially helpful as she and other keepers work to keep all the penguins in Como’s colonies healthy and happy. “Since that trip, I’ve become much better at handling the penguins,” says Dinsmore. “It comes in handy to be able to grab them quickly and safely.”

The trip also showed her that penguins at Como Zoo behave just like the penguins she met and cared for in South Africa.  “Penguins here are the same as penguins there, and because their behavior is the same, I can infer that our penguins are living their best life.”

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