Keepers at the Kansas City Zoo watched anxiously as their first penguin hatchling struggled for life.
The chick was not gaining weight even though its first-time parents were feeding it regurgitated fish, or attempting to. Reluctantly, the keepers had to pull the fuzzy, feathered baby away to treat it medically. It didn’t work.
But then no one said caring for penguins and their offspring was going to be easy.
The zoo is zero for four when it comes to Humboldt chicks since its $15 million penguin exhibit opened to public enthusiasm eight months ago.
Of four Humboldt eggs, one was not fertile and two did not incubate, for unknown reasons. The one chick that hatched had been a favorite on public display and lived 37 days before it died this week of kidney failure and other problems.
“We were treating it pretty intensively,” said zoo veterinarian Kirk Suedmeyer. “It never made a whole lot of progress. It’s very disconcerting.”
The Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, which was the source of many of Kansas City’s penguins, has an 80 to 90 percent success rate with eggs among its 40 Humboldts, said collection manager Shawn Pedersen. His zoo actually limits chicks to eight or nine a year.
“Four (unsuccessful) eggs is an awfully small number to be alarmed about,” Pedersen said of Kansas City’s experience. “If it had been 10 eggs and no success, it would be a little more alarming to me.”
Tom Schneider, the curator of birds at the Detroit Zoo and chairman of a committee that keeps track of the 3,000 or so penguins in North American animal parks, said Kansas City’s experience is not unusual.
“This year, for instance, we had a number of eggs,” Schneider said of the Detroit Zoo’s macaroni penguins. “Four or five were not fertile. We hatched three chicks and one of those died.”
The number of successful penguin hatches varies year to year, but the captive population overall is self-sustaining.
“People don’t really import penguins anymore because we’re able to breed enough to supply zoos what they need,” Schneider said.
The zoo has gone to great lengths to protect the health of its penguins and its investment in the birds.
Every one of the zoo’s 61 penguins, representing four species, has been subjected to a battery of tests by the veterinary staff, including blood draws, swabs for pathogens and fecal parasite exams. A couple of the Humboldts were treated for tapeworms.
They even had eye exams and were microchipped. The Humboldts were placed on medicine to prevent avian malaria, and every bird was treated for aspergillus, an affliction common to penguins.
They were also X-rayed, and some of them had to be operated on to remove foreign objects, such as wire, metal, plastic and rubber. The penguins had ingested the material before they arrived, prompting the zoo to alert their previous keepers they might need to correct a problem with their exhibits or holding areas.
“It’s a lot of manpower and a lot of work,” Suedmeyer said of the vet regimen. “We want to have a healthy penguin population, and we’ve had very few issues.”
None of the zoo’s adult penguins — 34 gentoos, 12 kings, four rockhoppers and 11 Humboldts — have died. As for offspring, a number of things can work against reproduction.
For one, Kansas City’s penguins came from across the country and have had to adjust to a new environment and new social groupings. And first pairings of young birds, as was the case with Kansas City’s hatchling, are not always successful.
“Many of our original birds were closer relatives and were not good breeding pairs,” said marketing director Julie Neemeyer. “In fact, we had some that were siblings. So any eggs that were produced were pulled.”
Some species can breed throughout the year. Others have limited mating periods. Penguins usually lay two eggs, but rarely do both survive.
Chicks are helpless at birth. They depend on both parents to take turns feeding and caring for the chick, which may remain completely dependent for up to six months.
Zoo officials remain hopeful for future successful hatchlings.
“It is always sad to have an animal pass away,” zoo director Randy Wisthoff said in a statement. “To have active breeding of many pairs in the first year of an exhibit opening is promising.”
The penguin exhibit remains very popular. An estimated 580,000 people have seen them cavort since it opened.
“A lot of our guests are just coming to see the penguins, and maybe the polar bears,” Neemeyer said. “They aren’t visiting the whole zoo.”
Schneider has not seen Kansas City’s penguin exhibit in person, but members of his team have.
“They’ve got a good penguin staff and a really nice facility,” he said of the Kansas City Zoo. “They’re going to have a very successful future with penguins.”