BALTIMORE – Veterinary intern Carol Bradford props the young African Penguin on his wobbly webbed feet atop a metal hospital table at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. He seems at ease, his eyes are half shut and his wings are relaxed . . . until she gently lets him go.
He falls back and lands on his rear.
The 20-week old male penguin is not clumsy. Rather he is recovering from a rare and risky spinal surgery that is common for domestic pets such as cats and dogs but is almost never done on birds.
But this penguin is not just any bird. He is one of 51 African Penguins in the zoo’s prized colony of the threatened species. The Maryland Zoo’s colony of the precocious birds – nicknamed “jackass” for their distinctive call resembling donkey’s – is the largest of its kind in the U.S.
The African Penguin is found in South Africa and is the only penguin to breed in Africa. According to the International Penguin Conservation Work Group the population of African Penguins is 10 percent of what it was in 1900 due mainly to oil spills, the harvesting of their eggs and the over-fishing of their food source such as anchovies and sardines. They are listed as vulnerable by the World Conservation Union.
Thus, when workers at the zoo noticed the penguin stumbling shortly after he was born they began a slew of tests to examine his condition. Veterinarians found the bird’s vertebrae were angled abnormally. At first they thought he might still be able to function normally because they had seen a similar but less-serious problem before.
“We were wrong; he started having trouble walking and eventually was tumbling over,” Bradford said.
Zoo veterinarians sent the yet to be named penguin – whose coat will remain gray until he reaches adulthood – to get an MRI at the IAMS Pet Imaging Center in Northern Virginia. The imaging confirmed what veterinarians feared, the hump on his back was the result of vertebrae misalignment, resulting in the need for a complicated procedure – the first of its kind for a penguin.
“Chickens often have spinal injuries, but it’s not like chicken farmers want to pay for an expensive operation. I know that cockatoos have had this sort of procedure before,” said Bradford.
Bradford’s “working theory,” on the cause of the penguin’s spinal hump is that when he was born, his vertebrae were weak and a fall or an odd twist set them out of alignment.
Bradford assisted Dr. John “Jay” McDonnell, a veterinary neurologist from the Dogs and Cats Veterinary Referral Center in Bowie, in a procedure to secure the penguin’s vertebrae with wire and then cover the area with bone cement.
McDonnell has performed procedures like this many times on dogs and cats, but never before on a penguin. Calling the bird a “tough little guy,” McDonnell said doing a surgery like this on a bird is incredibly complicated because the bones are fragile and fine. Also, since the fracture was old the spine had already tried to heal itself and had formed a callous with a large blood supply.
“The two big complications in a surgery like this are permanent paralysis and hemorrhage,” said McDonnell. “We have a lot of hope that he is going to return to normal,”
Bradford said often zoo animals are sent to outside specialists like McDonnell who usually work on domestic animals. The zoo veterinarians and the specialists work together on a treatment.
“You name it we do it here at the zoo, everything from elephants to penguins,” said McDonnell.
Veterinarians do not know if the penguin will heal for another few weeks. But the prognosis is pretty good. Right now he is confined to a small cage so that his bones can heal. Every once in a while the veterinarians will let him “splash about” in a tub of water, said Bradford.
Confinement is good for the juvenile bird – while still in the colony, the other penguins picked on him because of his disability. Bradford says he will only be introduced back into the colony if he is fully healed, so that he can be socially accepted.
“If he cannot fully heal we may introduce him as an educational penguin,” meaning a penguin that will be taken to schools and events to educate people about penguins. But, if he doesn’t heal properly, “we may have to euthanize him rather than keep him alone his whole life,” said Bradford. If the penguin is healthy and introduced back into the colony, Bradford said he should have no problem finding a female and forming a monogamous pair for breeding season.