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Revealed - secrets of the Torquay penguin keepers

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: February 16, 2013

Clockwise from main picture: African penguins cross a zoo path in safety; a macaroni penguin and chick; an African penguin chick befriends a soft toy after being bullied by a sibling; a macaroni cools off

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Penguins lead a double life, writes Philip Knowling.On land they are funny little people, waddling like cartoon characters. In water they are torpedo-swift swimmers – they dart past the underwater windows with a sideways glance that seems to say "Fooled you!"

Living Coasts, Torquay's "coastal zoo", is home to two species, Africans – officially listed as endangered – and macaronis. It is one of the largest flocks of penguins in the UK. The main penguin keepers are Lois Rowell and Amy Fitzgerald.

Like all top zoos, Living Coasts has a mission to make a difference. It puts money into international research to help penguins in the wild and gives to SANCCOB, the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds.

"Keeping penguins is not like keeping other birds," said Lois. "They can be difficult," admits Amy. "But penguin keeper is my dream job. I love how penguins interact with people, how they respond to and recognise their keepers. They have a fun, happy-go-lucky nature."

Lois explains that it's harder to keep crested penguins than African penguins.

"African penguins are used to weather like ours, although the sea currents are colder. The macaronis come from sub-Antarctic islands where temperatures are more extreme. They could overheat here if not carefully managed. They need plenty of shade, and we have an industrial fan which sprays a fine mist of cold water."

The breeding habits of macaroni penguins are unusual. They lay two eggs – the first is only about 60% of the size of the second, has less chance of being fertile and is usually kicked out of the nest before the second is laid.

Lois says: "African penguins are burrow nesters, so to check the nest we have to lie down and use a torch. This can be quite hazardous if the penguin objects, as they have very sharp beaks. I have had a torch broken by an angry penguin!"

What do you have to look out for when you are caring for penguins? "As with any colony bird, some individuals are more outgoing than others," says Amy. "It is important to ensure timid birds get every-thing they need."

Living Coasts has a reputation for being good with penguins. What's the secret?

"Experience, enclosure design..." says Lois. "The sand is deep, so the Africans can dig down to nest. We add half pipes to stop the burrows collapsing, but otherwise the penguins dig their own nests.

"Also, there's natural seawater from Tor Bay. The enclosure is large and the location is ideal, right on the coast with plenty of clean sea air."

How many of the penguins can the keepers recognise? "All of our penguins are tagged for ID. We keep detailed records of parentage and health," explains Lois. "Some birds have names – about a quarter – the ones with the memorable characters."

Finally, what makes a good penguin keeper?

"You must be observant, caring and willing and able to do heavy work, not mind smelling of fish most of the time and be willing to get very wet and cold on occasion," laughed Lois.

So, for the right person with the right attitude (and the right tolerance to fish), the rewards of penguin keeping in terms of job satisfaction and a nice warm glow of contentment at the end of a long day are pretty high.

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