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Considerations for Housing of Little Blue Penguins in Rescue Facilities

The conditions a penguin is held in during the rehabilitation period will profoundly impact the likelihood of being released to the wild. Inadequate provision of space, correct substrate or clean water for bathing will cause other problems to develop, and the animal may be caught in a cycle of man-made health issues that can cause it to become permanently unreleasable.

After providing first aid treatment, wildlife carers should critically assess their facilities to ensure they can make good provisions to rehabilitate Little Blue Penguins. Where their facilities are more suited to other species and cannot be adapted to an acceptable level, carers should contact the network of wildlife rehabbers in New Zealand (WReNNZ) and seek to place the animals with someone who has more penguin-friendly facilities. The various requirements of a standard enclosure are discussed below.

Substrate (Flooring)

A suitable substrate is crucial to penguins in a hospital or rehab situation as they are typically not spending as much time swimming as they usually would. Although the natural substrate found in burrows and around rookeries can be quite hard or dirty, this is mitigated by the fact that these birds also spend huge amounts of time at sea and therefore are not placing weight through their feet 24/7. Pododermatitis or “Bumblefoot” is common in penguins housed in sub-optimal conditions and can have long-lasting effects even when the visible bumblefoot lesions have healed. The author has seen cases of LBPs with tendon fibrosis and contracture, permanently affecting their natural posture and contributing to ongoing foot problems in individuals who have been housed long-term in sub-optimal conditions.

If natural substrate such as sand is to be used, then consideration should be taken of the person-hours required to maintain the substrate. Sand (or even soil) is only acceptable when maintained to a very high standard, and this means the top layer of sand or soil needs to have any faeces and urates scraped off at least once daily (more if multiple animals are housed in the same enclosure), and raked deeply daily to loosen the substrate as it compacts quickly. Other organic matter such as straw, cut grass or leaves should be avoided as these are an excellent breeding ground for Aspergillus fungi causing respiratory disease and death.

Foam tiles such as those sold for children’s play areas are cheap, soft and easy to clean and the interlocking “jigsaw puzzle” type are an excellent option for penguin flooring. (Care should be taken to purchase the soft children’s tiles rather than the firm tiles used in the building industry as safety flooring). The tiles can become slippery when wet, so the author would suggest covering them with towels and an old sheet, pulled taut and tucked under the edges to prevent the penguins from tripping on wrinkles. This flooring can be used outside and hosed at least once daily or used inside. The sheet can be removed and replaced for ease of cleaning.

For an inside enclosure and if the foam matting is not available, the flooring should be a towel layer of at least two towels thickness plus a sheet over the top, smoothed flat and tucked in.

A ‘burrow” should be provided for hiding opportunities; this should be well-cushioned underfoot as the patient may choose to spend a lot of time inside. A plastic storage box, preferably in a dark colour with a hatch cut out, is an ideal burrow as it can be cleaned and disinfected as often as needed. Cardboard boxes are perfectly adequate but will need to be replaced frequently.

Additional towels may be placed on top of the sheet in areas where the penguin spends long periods of time, under hiding boxes or heat lamps or around water sources; this may help reduce the number of sheet changes required.

Heat lamps

Penguins who arrive into care emaciated or waterlogged should be provided additional heat as their usual insulation of dry feathers, and body mass has been lost. Ideally, these patients should not be housed outside unless the weather is very fine. An indoor enclosure is preferred to provide ambient warmth and shelter from the wind. An additional heat source such as a heat lamp should be placed in one enclosure corner. It is essential to allow the animal to move away from the heat if they wish, so never place it over a burrow or other resource where the penguin is forced to choose to be perhaps more warm than is comfortable to use the resource.

Water quality

A penguin needs to be fully waterproof before it can be deemed releasable, and this is reliant on a clean water source to bathe and preen in.

Seawater is obviously ideal for rehab penguins, but where this is impossible or impractical fresh water can be provided with no ill effects for short periods, ensuring that the diet provided is appropriate (small whole salt-water species of fish), which in turn will deliver the penguin some levels of salt to be excreted via the salt gland through the nostrils.

Water sources should be deep enough for the penguin to at least fully submerge in and ideally deep enough to dive under the water. The water body should also be several times the penguin’s body length (ideally at least five times). If such a provision is not possible in the holding facility, then further consideration should be given to transferring the animal to another carer with more suitable facilities. Alternately, some rehabilitators can take their penguin patients to an area of calm seawater and swim them within a large dog crate for half an hour or so once they are strong enough.

Water sources must be kept scrupulously clean as fish and faeces contain oil that will disrupt the waterproofing of the penguins. No fish should ever be left in a swimming pool, and care must also be taken when feeding penguins that they should not be left with fish debris around their beak or face. More difficult patients who struggle violently may need their faces washed after feeding! Care should also be taken not to handle penguins with hands, gloves or towels that have fish or fish juice on them.

Frequent periods of swimming and then thoroughly drying out on land should be encouraged as this promotes preening. Preening ensures two crucial functions:

1) Feather barbs are groomed into place interlocked by the barbules, ensuring a lattice-like waterproof structure and

2) Preen gland oil is spread throughout the feathers promoting good feather quality

If a penguin is being force/ assist fed, it is advisable to place them directly into their pool after feeding as they will then have a short swim that will wash the face and then come out to preen, dry off, and digest their meal.

Assessment and achievement of waterproofing will be discussed in a future resource

Article was written by

Celine Campana | Veterinary Nurse Auckland Zoo


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