Veterinary Care: New Penguin Facility is a Veterinarian’s Dream Come True

Anyone who has visited the Detroit Zoo’s Penguinarium probably knows that it is impossible to escape the charm of the penguin. I have been caring for penguins at the Detroit Zoo for more than 20 years, and can attest to this firsthand. I find them to be exceptionally interesting and charismatic animals, and even after all these years, I enjoy every visit to the Penguinarium immensely. More than a few penguins have stolen my heart over the years.

Generally speaking, penguins are strong, feisty birds that rarely develop health problems. In recent years, the penguin flock at the Detroit Zoo has become older, and we have treated penguins for a variety of age-related medical problems. In the course of this work, we realized that there were gaps in the scientific literature concerning penguin health. As a result, we focused our efforts on gaining a better understanding of some of the most important conditions, including cataracts, melanoma and bumblefoot. Our animal health and life sciences departments and the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare all share the same long-term goal of better understanding how we can provide an environment that allows penguins to thrive and maintain the best possible health and welfare.

The new Polk Penguin Conservation Center is a penguin veterinarian’s dream come true. We feel so fortunate to have been able to use our expanded knowledge of penguin health to inform the design of their new home. Every aspect of the habitat is designed to meet their unique needs:

  • The lighting in the new habitat provides a much wider spectrum of wavelengths, with more ultraviolet light and improved nighttime lighting in the red wavelength ranges. The lighting intensity capacity is greatly increased, and can be adjusted to mimic seasonal variation.
  • The flooring has been designed to enhance foot health and prevent development of bumblefoot lesions. In some places, the floor is coated with a resinous material to provide cushioning, and in other areas the flooring has variable rocky textures, mimicking conditions seen in Antarctica.
  • The penguins will have an enormous pool for swimming, and a swim channel that will allow them to circumnavigate the entire habitat. This will result in increased activity levels and opportunities for natural porpoising and diving behaviors and will help them avoid weight gain.
  • The water filtration system is state-of-art, and will include an ozonation capacity and improved water filtration.
  • The air quality will be significantly improved, providing 100% air exchange and improved air filtering.
  • The nesting areas are designed to be easy to clean and allow better chick-rearing success.
  • We will also have more places to temporarily hold animals needing special attention during illness or quarantine, and fold-down stainless steel exam tables for veterinary exams and procedures.

 

 

 

 

Over the years, we have been able to provide treatment and loving care to a number of very special penguin patients and have had a lot of success: We’ve helped chicks who have gotten off to a rough start, restored vision to a number of geriatric penguins with cataracts and significantly reduced the incidence of bumblefoot. Despite these successes, our greatest measure of achievement is in the medical problem that is avoided altogether. We constantly strive to prevent issues from developing, through carefully designed diets, vaccination and parasite prophylaxis, disease surveillance and excellent care. The Polk Penguin Conservation Center is a big stride forward toward this goal, and we thank the community for their support of this exciting project. Thank you for helping us provide the best possible care to our penguin family.

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the Director of Animal Health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Animal Welfare: Penguin Research Continues as Opening of New Facility Nears

Our ongoing research project on penguin welfare continues as we get closer to the opening of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, and we are learning a lot! For the past nine months, we have been keeping track of what the penguins are doing in the Penguinarium; where they spend their time, and with whom they are spending time. In addition, the data loggers that some of the birds have worn to track their swimming behavior have really highlighted how different each individual penguin is when it comes to spending time in the water. Some like to get their swimming done early in the morning, and some like to dip in and out throughout the day. Studying the welfare of animals is focused on each individual animal, and this is a perfect example of why this is important. By understanding how individuals differ, we can best meet the needs of each one.

We began this project to understand how the new Polk Penguin Conservation Center, opening in Spring 2016, would impact the penguins living at the Detroit Zoo. This not only helps us to ensure that the penguins here are thriving, but also to gain information that can be shared with others to benefit penguins living in other zoos and aquariums. An important part of the research is collecting what is referred to as baseline data, which is then used to compare with data collected in the new habitat so changes in the penguins’ behavior or activity patterns can be identified and so we can understand how they are experiencing the new habitat.

Some of the techniques we are using here may also help penguins in the wild. Field researchers can’t always study animals as closely as we can, so we may be able to provide valuable information to them, such as how we are using data loggers. We are also working on measuring hormones in penguin feathers that can provide more evidence on how penguins respond to changes in their environment. This is useful for penguins both in captive settings and in the wild.

We will continue to provide updates on this project, so be sure to check back to see our progress!

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.