GSC Penguin Keeper Shares South African Experience

IMG_0307GREENSBORO, NC — Shannon Anderson, lead penguin keeper at the Greensboro Science Center (GSC), spent 10 days in South Africa assisting with the rescue, rehabilitation and release of seabirds at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB).Anderson’s participation was part of SANCCOB’S Animal Professional Experience, an exchange program for penguin keepers wishing to apply their husbandry knowledge in order to assist with the conservation and welfare of wild penguin populations. Her experience was sponsored by the GSC’s Conservation and Research Grant, funding which offers GSC staff the opportunity to pursue a conservation or research project.

Anderson worked side by side with the organization’s bird rehabilitation staff and volunteers, practicing her current skills and learning how to care for sick, injured, oiled, and abandoned African penguins and other seabirds. Most of her time was spent working in the chick rearing unit, where she was responsible for as few as eight chicks and sometimes as many as 23. There, her responsibilities were preparing and administering food and medications – which included tube feeding chicks four times each day – as well as cleaning the pens and reporting welfare checks.

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Anderson says she learned a lot during her time at SANCCOB. The autonomy of the work reiterated how capable she is at husbandry and affirmed the depth of knowledge she has about African penguins. She enjoyed the opportunity of working with wild penguins, which was far different from her zookeeper work. Anderson says, “It was very different working with wild birds. We were encouraged to be rough. There was no talking. We didn’t handle the birds. You didn’t caudle them, you pushed them to meet milestones to keep them on track with their development and growth. In the end, the chicks were going to rejoin the colony and they had to have the skills necessary to survive. We didn’t want them to get imprinted or they’d just end up needing additional human intervention.” Anderson says that this approach has proven successful for SANCCOB, which boasts an 85% success rate of returning birds to the wild following admission.

Anderson’s experience in South Africa greatly contributed to the conservation of wild birds in her care, but it also gave her new knowledge that she was able to apply at the GSC. Shortly after she arrived home in late December, Anderson found a compromised egg in one of the nest boxes. By following SANCCOB’s protocols regarding incubation, humidity, temperature, and timing, she was successfully able to hatch the chick using sterile forceps and precise timing. All the skills applied to make sure this chick survived, she learned during her time in South Africa. She also took the skills learned from working in SANCCOB’s ICU unit to create a new diet for an ill bird, leading to that bird’s quick recovery. Anderson will admit the confidence to take the lead and use those skills also had something to do with her time at SANCCOB.

Anderson was one of three staff members who received project funding through the GSC’s Conservation and Research Grant program. The GSC’s staff can apply for funds to support research projects, conservation work or relevant professional development. Applicants must submit a written application, provide a presentation to the research committee and, if funded, present a program recap to the GSC’s board and staff.

The GSC has long supported SANCCOB via its annual Tuxedo Trot, a 5K and Kids’ Fun Run designed specifically to raise funds for endangered African penguins. The event, which has raised $50,000 since its inception in 2013, will return on Saturday, April 27, 2019. More information about the event can be found online at http://www.tuxedotrot.com.

Lindsey Zarecky, VP of Conservation & Research at the GSC said, “The GSC Research Committee was thrilled to send Shannon to assist with a conservation organization we have supported for years. We receive thank you letters, photos, progress reports, and field updates from SANCCOB, but to see the glow in the eyes of someone who got to experience wild penguin conservation makes our 5K fundraiser so much more meaningful.” When we asked Shannon what her major takeaway was from this trip she said, “In our hearts, zookeepers want to do this, we want to make a difference, and that is why we work with animals. But you never know if you will actually get a chance to use your skills. This trip just made everything worthwhile.”

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