Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Edinburgh Zoo keeper reflects on a century of penguins and parades

Star attraction: Members of the Royal family visiting the Edinburgh Zoo penguins in 1934.Edinburgh Zoo/Scots Pictorial Press
If you live or work in Edinburgh, you would need to have spent a considerable time away on the moon to be unaware that the city’s zoo is currently home to two giant pandas.

Images of Sunshine and Sweetie have been used in adverts across the capital, while the pandas themselves have been visited by thousands of people including Hollywood stars and royalty since their arrival at the end of 2011.

Tian Tian and Yang Guang, to give them their Sunday titles, have also been the subject of numerous press releases from the Zoo’s publicity department over the potential for them to become more than just friends, with newsrooms around the UK deliberating the age old question of will they/won’t they.
For some other residents of the Zoo, the arrival of the pandas has - one could speculate - not been universally welcomed.

The penguins have been a fixture at Edinburgh Zoo since 1914. Their celebrated history and role at the tourist attraction over the past century will be discussed tonight at Edinburgh’s Central Library by two of the zoo’s penguin keepers, Colin Oulton and Jo Elliot.

One episode of that penguin history which certainly caused a splash occurred in December 2011, a few weeks after the arrival of the pandas. It focused on the apparent jealousy of some penguins who decided to litter visitors at the adjacent panda enclosure with their droppings.

Colin laughed: “I think that must have been a slow news day. The penguin in question had a nest site on the edge that overlooked where the panda queue was.
“As is common practice, when a penguin needs to poo, they don’t poo on their nest site. They eject it about a metre around them.

“It just so happened that a chap was standing below in the queue and the poo landed on the man in front. He obviously thought, ‘this is a fantastic story, I must tell that to somebody’. It grew out of all proportions from there.

“I think the penguins always show off. They are intelligent, curious animals and they will be looking at people and objects that catch their eye. As for a penguin maliciously pooing on someone in a fit of jealously, I wouldn't buy that.”
While the jury is out on whether the penguins are jealous of the pandas, one thing that is certain is the important role the penguins have always played in the life of the zoo.

Family links between the attraction’s founder Thomas Gillespie and the Christian Salveson whaling company lead to the transport of three king penguins from the South Atlantic to Edinburgh in the months before the outbreak of the First World War.

The trio are thought to have been the first penguins to ever be seen outside of their natural habitat. A chick hatched at the zoo in 1919 and eleven years later the first penguin pool was constructed.
The penguins, which form the logo of the zoo, are now famous for their daily parades outside of their enclosure while one of them - Sir Nils Olav - also holds the lofty position of mascot of the Norwegian guard.

 Sir Nils Olav, the Edinburgh Zoo penguin, receiving a knighthood in 2008
Sir Nils Olav, the Edinburgh Zoo penguin, receiving a knighthood in 2008

There are currently 106 birds at the attraction, the oldest aged 33. Three species of the animal live in the zoo - gentoo, king and northern rockhopper.
Colin, 39, has worked at the zoo since 1996 after studying zoology at Aberdeen University. During his time at the attraction, he has worked with the rhinos, giraffes, primates and reptiles.

He said: “The penguin parade, legend has it, started in 1951 when a keeper left a door open by accident and some of the penguins walked out.
“Rather than panic, he thought he would close the door and follow them. They walked round the front of the enclosure, he opened up a gate and they went back in.

“It has been a daily occurrence for over 50 years. It is held at 2.15pm and some of the penguins undoubtedly know that it is parade time. Quite often, the king penguins will stand up at the parade gate ready to go at 2.15pm.”
While the penguin parade is a favourite of many visitors to the zoo, for Colin and other staff members the event became one which caused trepidation a few years ago because of one particular gentoo penguin the keepers nicknamed ‘Asbo.’

 Edinburgh Zoo penguins
The penguins at Edinburgh Zoo will be the subject of a library talk. Copyright - Edinburgh Zoo/Ivon Bartholomew

He said: “We have some birds that have been notorious over the years for being a bit 'bitey' towards staff. ‘Asbo’ was nicknamed because of his parade behaviour.
“He always wanted to come out on parade and he was really aggressive towards staff. When you were in the enclosure with him, he was fine. He was well behaved, but when he came out on parade he terrorized staff but not the public. He reserved it entirely for us.

“He was what you would call a ‘character’.”
‘Asbo’ was moved from Edinburgh to a sea life centre in Billund, Denmark - the home of Lego - in February 2012 as part of a conservation project, much to the disappointment, no doubt, to Colin and the other keepers.

Colin and Jo’s talk comes amid a busy time for staff during penguin mating season. Last Sunday, the first egg hatched with another chick arriving on Monday. You can keep across all the action from inside the enclosure with the zoo’s dedicated webcam.
“Some of the birds were standing in the spot where they normally breed even before we put the nest rings in place,” said Colin.

“It is interesting to see that behaviour. Some of the birds knew exactly where they were before.”
This is the first breeding season since the penguins moved back into their revamped enclosure in March.
Colin hopes that between 20 and 25 chicks will survive from the 40 eggs which have been laid by the penguins, with the season expected to last into June.

When these new penguins settle into life at Edinburgh Zoo, they will no doubt entertain thousands of people with their waddles on the parade ground and their swimming skills.

As long as ‘Asbo’ is not amongst them, Colin should remain happy.


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