Within the first two months of hatching, one of the Gulfarium’s new African penguin chicks began holding its ankles abnormally.
Following a series of medical examinations by the Gulfarium animal care and veterinary team, it was discovered that the tendons in the chick’s legs were too loose, allowing the joint to slip out of place. Even though the issue was initially found in the right leg, it was soon determined that the left leg was also affected, but to a lesser degree. With the leg joints slipping out of place, the penguin chick was unable to walk. Possible causes for the issue, as seen in other bird species, include a congenital defect, an abnormal growth rate or other undetermined causes.
Due to her inability to walk, Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park reached out to specialists in the Zoological Medicine Department at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. Vanessa Ferraz, a veterinary orthopedic surgeon there, had experience with similar cases in other birds and penguins. It was decided that external fixators would be placed on the chick’s legs, which would allow the ankles to be held in position so that the tendon would not slip out of place. This solution would enable the penguin to walk, and have some range of motion as the legs continue to grow. Exercise would help develop the muscles of the legs, thus tightening the tendons.
A team of zoo veterinarians, residents, interns and vet students worked tirelessly to assist in the chick’s surgeries and recovery. During the healing process, the Integrative Medicine department prescribed exercises to strengthen the muscles in the chick’s legs and improve its ability to walk.
“We knew that surgery was necessary in order to give the chick a chance at a future and the ability to walk,” said Dr. Rebecca Wells, Gulfarium’s veterinarian. “The chick continues to thrive and is improving every day. We are very thankful to the team at University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine for their help on this case. We are cautiously optimistic that the chick will continue to thrive and enjoy the life of a normal penguin. We will continue to learn from this case in order to help this endangered species.”
The chick is currently undergoing rehabilitation at the Gulfarium while the animal care staff monitors its progress daily.
Updates on the chick’s progress will be made available on Gulfarium’s Facebook and Instagram pages.
African, or black-footed, penguins can be found in four different countries in South Africa. They are currently listed as “Endangered” on the IUCN red list, which means their populations are currently in severe decline and the trends show no sign of reversing.
African penguin numbers are declining due to a variety of reasons, including climate change, human intrusion causing habitat destruction, and commercial fisheries depleting their food supply.