Partnerships are important to Como Zoo’s colony of penguins

The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s Sunken Garden is a great place to take a date, as Como Zoo’s popular penguin pair Cupid and BJ proved on a recent enrichment outing to see the Winter Flower Show.

Chaperoned by three-year-old Amahle, who was celebrating her birthday, the three penguins were spotted in the Sunken Garden, celebrating Penguin Awareness Day with their Facebook fans on a recent edition of Como LIVE.

Penguins are social animals, and the partnerships they forge with their mates can last a lifetime. Penguin pairs are typically monogamous, sticking with their mates from one breeding season to the next. But if a partner passes away, or fails to show up at a colony’s nesting site, penguins will begin the search for another available mate to help shoulder the burden of protecting the nest, finding food, and fending off predators.

“Cupid and BJ are actually an example of a late in life union,” explains Como Zoo aquatics keeper Becky Sievers, noting that both penguins have lived long past the typical 20 year life span in the wild. Cupid, who will turn 31 years old on Valentine’s Day, has had two long-lasting prior partnerships, first with a female, and later with a male, a living arrangement that’s not uncommon among penguins. BJ’s past partnerships had been less placid—after spending years paired with a penguin named Fluffy, she changed rocks and paired up with a different penguin, Arturo, when he lost his mate. When Arturo died, BJ, now 30, returned to nesting with Fluffy, who also passed away.

“It does sound like a bit of a soap opera, but we have to be careful not to anthropomorphize how animals think and behave,” Sievers cautions. Even though penguins have become a pop cultural symbol of familial devotion and eternal love, she says, “penguins are complex animals” that don’t reflect the human and romantic notions we often project on them.

How can you tell when penguins have paired up? “As keepers, we start to notice when they bond. When Cupid lost his mate, he stood all by himself or with another pair, but over time, BJ started standing next to him,” Sievers explains. “Eventually, they started standing together all the time, and sharing a sleeping space and nesting place.”

African penguins like Cupid and BJ are endangered. But because the genetics of Como Zoo’s nine-penguin colony are already well represented in zoo populations, Como is a holding site–not a breeding site–for the species. Even so, nearly all of Como Zoo’s penguins are paired up with a life partner—Chicory and Skua, Munchkin and Neptune, and Boo and Vern. Only Como’s youngest penguin, Amahle, is without a partner, which may explain her engaging personality with people and her excitement about enrichment toys like the remote control shark she chases around her pool.

Amahle and her colony are about to get some extra enrichment this year, when the Aquatic Animals Building they live in welcomes several new species, including a giant Pacific octopus. All part of a major renovation of the 1980s-era structure, the remodeled aquatics buildings will include a new microhabitat exploring the conservation challenges of lionfish, and an interactive “submarine” feature that will give young visitors an imaginary glimpse of what it’s like to be marine researchers.

Sievers says the penguins are paying close attention to the changes happening to their home turf, and seemed to enjoy their recent waddle around the Sunken Garden. “Enrichment is something different in their day that brings out their natural behaviors, and in this case in the Conservatory, it was about giving them the chance to explore a setting that they’re not used to,” she says. “They were interested in the plants, the overhead fans, following the photographer and keepers, and eyeing the little pools. Luckily, none of them tried to go swimming!”

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