Monday, October 19, 2009

Good Story of a Penguin Keeper's Job

Joshua McKerrow — The Capital Penguin keeper Bethany Wlaz of Eastport feeds her hungry charges at The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. Wlaz is one of three full-time penguin keepers at the zoo, and it isn’t hard to tell she loves her work. The African penguins get fed twice a day — at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

Eastport resident works with zoo's penguins
Published 10/18/09

Bethany Wlaz has the best seat in the house for a gripping soap opera filled with lust, envy and intrigue.

Every day, the Eastport resident walks up a long tunnel to take in the action of "The Young and the Flightless."

It's her nickname for the interesting goings-on among the 43 African penguins on Rock Island at The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, which according to officials is the largest colony of that type of penguin in North America.

"There's a lot of drama down here," quipped Wlaz, 26, clad in green T-shirt, gloves, khaki pants and big black rubber boots.

The soap opera cast is made up of characters like Wheezy, Beaker, Honkers, Oreo, Pudge and Shorty - and the "performers" vie for attention among themselves and from

Wlaz and the two other full-time keepers who care for them.

Wlaz has had the job for two years, and it's obvious from the second she enters the exhibit that she has a boundless love for the work and her feathered, 18-inch-tall friends.

"Are you loving this?" she asks Wheezy, a 3-year-old female, as she strokes her belly. "You're a goooood girl. She really wants to be a movie star, I think."

As if on cue, Wheezy, who will answer to her name when called, then strikes pose after pose for the camera, each one cuter than the one before. (Wheezy got her name because she has a deformed trachea and some breathing problems.)

Wheezy is silent as Wlaz spends quality time with her, but the penguins are capable of making quite a lot of noise, like when they're squabbling over mates or living arrangements. They're sometimes called jackass penguins because of the braying sound they make.

Wheezy is among the friendliest members of the colony. Some aren't as sociable, and Wlaz points out that the penguins are capable of hurting the keepers with a snap of their powerful beaks or a slap of their wings. This hasn't deterred her in the least, however.

"I love them all," she said with a smile. "It's bad."

Wlaz jokes that she has a lot of pets: three fish and two cats at home - and the zoo's 40-plus penguins.

Not surprisingly, it's especially hard on her when a penguin dies or is transferred to another facility. "We ship out a lot of birds. It's tough to say goodbye," Wlaz said.

Her job is a lot of work, with the main tasks of feeding and cleaning, cleaning and feeding. The routine is time-consuming, and when it's coupled with her hour-long commute each way, it makes for a long day.

The hours get even longer if she has to make a special trip back to the zoo late at night or very early in the morning to give a sick penguin medicine, for example.

Wlaz also serves as vice president of GBAAZK, the Greater Baltimore chapter of the American Association of Zookeepers, and holds down a part-time job, so her leisure time is especially limited.

"I don't have a lot of free time and I get stressed out sometimes," she admitted. "But at the same time, I'm doing what I want to do."

Her favorite time with the penguins is when she first comes into work in the morning and can bond with the birds before the zoo officially opens. This isn't to say Wlaz isn't good with the public, because she shines at that part of her job, too, zoo officials said.

"I love having her down here," said area supervisor Jennifer Mignone.

Wlaz, she added, is outgoing, smart, responsible and willing to take on new projects.

"Bethany is very passionate about her job," said Mike McClure, general curator at the zoo. "But Beth also possesses a good capacity to talk to people. ... Many people drawn to the profession are good at it, but not all are good at drawing others into it."

Consuming work

The penguins, which are fed daily at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., dine on a mix of herring, capelin and squid. The first two are the favorites, with the squid pulling up the rear. Wlaz jokes that dining on squid is the penguin equivalent of eating their vegetables.

Everything the penguins consume (they can have as much as they want) is meticulously recorded so zoo officials have a record of their eating habits. The penguins all have a tricolored band on one of their wings that corresponds to a number, which is how the information is logged.

Some of the feeding is done outside near the moat, and the rest is done in the interior nesting room, which is filled with travel kennels. All of the penguins take the fish or squid right from the hand of Wlaz.

"It really takes a level of trust with these birds," she explained. "They have to be down here six months before they learn to feed."

Wlaz often tells her friends about the goings-on in the colony, and they said it's not too tough to pick up on her devotion to the penguins.

"Everybody that knows her asks about the penguins, and she loves talking about them," said her friend, Krista Burich of Annapolis. "I'm so happy for her; working at the zoo was one of her dream jobs."

But it's a recent dream.

Although Wlaz has always liked animals and spent weekends of her teen years on a Pennsylvania farm, she didn't know what she was going to do for a career after college. She has a degree in geography.

So, Wlaz followed her family to Annapolis after graduation and took a job waitressing. In fact, she still waitresses two days a week at Federal House downtown. It helps pay the bills, she said.

"You do this job for the love of it, not for the money," Wlaz said of working with the penguins.

But the keeper's position does come with a certain cache of coolness.

"You know, it's one of those jobs I think we all wish we could have," said Jeremy Black, owner of Federal House.

Wlaz waitressed full time for a couple years after college - starting before Black bought the restaurant, which was then called Griffin's - and then took a trip that changed her life. She used the money she'd saved and traveled to Africa, where she volunteered with a group that works to preserve cheetah habitats in Namibia.

"It was just something I always wanted to do," she said. "When I got home, something clicked. (I knew) this is what I want to do, work with animals."

Next, Wlaz interned with a sanctuary for big cats in Florida. When that ended, she returned home and put in an application to the zoo.

Wlaz landed a part-time position in the zoo's hospital, where she stayed for four months until the penguin keeper's position opened.

"I'd helped out (there) a couple times and it blew me away," she said. "Now, I'm addicted. I'm a bird person. I couldn't be in an office. It wouldn't last for me."

For more information on The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, call 410-366-LION, or visit the Web site at


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