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Squawks and squabbles in the pursuit of love

By Ben Rodgers

SUAMICO – With Valentine’s Day around the corner, there are no animals more adjusted to the joys of relationships and the hardships of being single than the Animals of the Month.

Nestled away in their colony of 12, the African penguins at the NEW Zoo have all the drama of “The Bachelor.”

“If life is going well and they can depend on each other, there’s no reason to break that bond,” said Shannon Scanlan, senior zookeeper. “But, if one starts getting sick, they start to think about their backup plan.”

Currently there are four relationships in the penguin colony, the two youngest penguins, Cheers and Pip, born last January, are too young to find a mate, and two old birds, Gracie and Tweedle, are single.

Scanlan called it a soap opera without the bad acting.

“There’s drama and affairs,” she said. “There’s always something going on in here.”

It makes for interesting entertainment for the zoo staff, as many have an app on their phones that lets them watch a live feed of the birds 24/7.

One thing that remains constant in the colony is that relationships have to be beneficial for both birds.

“If we have an older bird who is sick, we see the other one putting out feelers for a new mate,” Scanlan said.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the birds is that they mate for life, which, for a person paying attention to the colony, is far from the truth.

“The whole monogamous thing is there to some extent, but not 100 percent,” Scanlan said.

There’s more storylines than love and lust in the penguin world as well.

There’s also the young son reluctant to spread his wings and leave the comforts of home.

“Cheers should be off on his own, but he’s literally like that little kid who starts off sleeping in his own bed, but ends up with mom and dad at the end of the night,” she said. “He’s not quite ready to be independent.”

Because of the cold, the birds are not allowed outside unless it is 20 degrees or warmer.

In their indoor habitat at the NEW Zoo, two birds each share a little house or shelter.

As his name implies, Fat Tony, with his mate Pinkie, needs the biggest house because of his size. While Gracie, the one of the oldest penguins at 24, likes her space and has commandeered a side room to herself.

“She’s an old girl, but she’s feisty,” Scanlan said.

The senior zookeeper said the birds remind her a lot of humans because of their interactions.

“It’s similar to people when you think about it,” she said. “We’re social by nature, we don’t get along with everybody and we have these relationships we form.”

Also known as the jackass penguin because of a donkey-like bray the birds make, not everyone in the colony is friendly.

When zookeepers enter the habitat they wear tall boots, and Lenny seems to always know to peck the zookeepers right above the bootline, Scanlan said.

As cute and personable as these birds are at the NEW Zoo, they are endangered, with only 52,000 remaining in their native habitat of South Africa.

“People are the main cause for their demise,” Scanlan said. “We collect the guano (bird poop) they build their nest in and they don’t have places to lay their eggs. They also use those nests for places when they want to cool off. If they can’t stand it, they venture out and are easy targets for predators.”

Climate change is also affecting water temperatures, which means the fish the birds would normally dine on are harder to get to. African penguins are forced to venture further away from home to eat.

At the start of the 19th century there were roughly four million of these birds.

As a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the NEW Zoo donates to conservation programs, one of them being the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds.

If people want to make a difference and help African penguins, Scanlan says they can donate to that group, or visit the zoo and help them donate.

People can also download the Seafood Watch app, to ensure that any fish they are eating come from sustainable sources.

“We have created this situation for the African penguin and it’s our duty to help them rebound,” Scanlan said.

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