Published: Wednesday, February 22, 2012
But the reason for Scooter’s bright dog cape, frayed by the constant pecking of her fellow African penguins, is one zookeepers take very seriously. Scooter didn’t molt this year, which means she also didn’t grow the new feathers that weave into a watertight coat.
While her caretakers make sure she doesn’t go into hypothermia, they’re studying a similar case in California where a custom-made wet suit triggered the molting process. With a little help, said zoo director Nancy Parker, the Neoprene vest could become the latest addition to Scooter’s growing wardrobe.
“People always think of penguins as cold-weather birds but ours come from South Africa, where they’re happiest when the weather is in the 60s,” said visitor services specialist Robin Carey. And even though they live along the coast-line, “it’s not humid,” she added.
Like most birds, they also molt each year, beginning with a two-week food binge that doubles their weight before they lose their plumage.
“It literally looks as if they’ve exploded,” Carey said. “There are feathers everywhere and these cute little downy penguins running around.”
They stay away from the water – hypothermia is a real risk in that state – and live off their stored fat while the new feathers come in. In a zoo setting, of course, they don’t need to go in the water to eat, “but it’s instinct,” Carey said. “We put the food out but they might eat one fish a day, at the most.”
Every so often, she added, penguins might miss a season of molting. It’s rare, Carey said, but it happens. But Scooter hasn’t shown new growth, either, and that’s cause for concern.
“Penguins have about 70 feathers per square inch, and they have oil glands at the base of their tails that produce the oil they spread over their feathers,” she said. “They need that insulation.”
An attentive zookeeper in Saginaw, browsing on the Internet, found an article titled “Why and How to Make a Penguin Wetsuit,” Parker said. It told about Pierre, a 25-year-old African penguin at the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco who didn’t molt for four years.
He also withdrew from his colony, something keepers are finding in Saginaw as the other penguins harass Scooter, who was hatched in 2001. While some might think the other ladies are jealous of her fancy penguin-wear, it has more to do with the approaching breeding season, Carey said, and looking for fancy threads to line their nests.
Zoo keepers in San Francisco tried several treatments, including heat lamps, on Pierre but he remained plucked until a seamstress experienced in making children’s costumes created a Neoprene vest. Within six weeks, his feathers had completely returned, possibly, they theorized, because the energy his body used to stay warm went instead toward sparking regrowth.
“Best of all, they included a pattern for making our own wet suit,” Parker said, brandishing the paperwork that calls for at least three square feet of black 3-millimeter Neoprene and 10 inches of black Velcro hook side and another 20 inches of the loop side. “This is something we could do.”
Visitors to Saturday’s Arctic Zoo Fest won’t see the penguins – they need temperatures of 37 degrees or higher with no wind chill, Parker said – but making appearances are the Forgotten Forest and Stock Yard inhabitants and a few kangaroos if the sun’s shining.
Activities include kids’ crafts, chainsaw woodcarving demonstrations and a meet-and-greet with real sled dogs.
“We’ll have the wolves and the bobcat, and the reptile building will be open, too,” she said. Also watch for the train, on its way back from Scientific Brake and Equipment Co. where it was spiffed up for the coming season.
“Weather permitting, it’s going to be on track,” Parker said.
The Arctic Zoo Fest takes place from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Children’s Zoo at Celebration Square, 1730 S. Washington in Saginaw. Admission is free but donations are welcome. Carousel and train rides cost $2.
The zoo kicks off its new season the last Saturday in March, with gates open from 10 a.m. to 5 p .m. daily. Admission costs $5.