Sunday, December 04, 2011
When it comes to water, penguins aren't naturals.
"Some of them are terrified," says Bethany Wlaz, a keeper at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.
So each time African penguins are born into the zoo's breeding program for the endangered birds, someone like Wlaz becomes their swimming coach. But first comes the introduction to being wet.
Soft as a cotton ball and about the size of a roasted chicken, Male One — hatched on Oct. 12 — is lowered into a stainless steel sink by Wlaz and Betty Dipple, another animal keeper.
"Araaah," the bird protests, as a stream of lukewarm water washes over its head and flippers. "Araaah."
Back and belly, tail feathers and webbed feet, nothing escapes the faucet. Five minutes later, the penguin's first bath is in the can.
While Male One is being dried and wrapped in a fluffy towel, Male Two — four days younger — gets the same treatment and emits a similar donkey-like bray. Puffs of gray down float in the air.
"They're getting the full salon service," Wlaz says.
Doting on African penguins has been a Maryland Zoo specialty for more than three decades. With 55 to 65 birds living at the moat-enclosed area known as Rock Island, the zoo has one of the largest breeding colonies in the country. Another major colony is at the New England Aquarium in Boston.