Instead, SeaWorld headed to an emperor penguin colony on Cape Washington, Antarctica and stole 10 dependent penguin chicks from their parents and shipped them back to the company's San Diego, California location.
According to the New Zealand Herald, conservation groups at the time were outraged. Among them was Bob Tait, director of the group Friends of the Earth:
“We strongly object to the removal of the penguins from their colony, and subjecting them to the ordeals of lengthy jet travel, and condemning them, for profit-driven reasons, to live out the rest of their lives separated from their real colony in an alien environment at SeaWorld, California.''
SeaWorld’s communications director David Koontz responded to the criticism by saying that the birds were being taken from the wild on behalf of the University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography for research purposes -- though the marine park’s involvement in the transfer hints at another less academic use for the birds.
Four emperor penguin chicks held in quarantine at SeaWorld after being taken from Antarctica in 1988. Source: Wikimedia
As the Herald reported, the penguins would be kept in captivity as part of the SeaWorld’s Penguin Encounter exhibit.
The Herald notes that SeaWorld received approval for taking the penguins from both the U.S. National Science Foundation and New Zealand’s Environmental Protection Agency. But for antarctic researchers, that only showed how lacking in protections the region’s wildlife really is.
"Antarctica is a reserve for science and nature, not a place for [taking] things from their homes,” said Cath Wallace of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition. “I think the Minister for the Environment and the EPA need to get some better Antarctic expertise because we are doing nothing there.''
Interestingly, as Tait pointed out, SeaWorld taking the penguins into captivity was particularly troubling considering that the Department of Conservation had recently devoted “significant resources and funding” to return a castaway emperor penguin back to the wild after it washed up in New Zealand -- something the marine park wasn’t going to do.
“SeaWorld does not intend on returning the penguins after their ‘research’,” he said.
Beyond the questionable ethics of transferring penguin into a life of captivity, the impact such thefts have on their parents is undoubtedly profound. Emperor penguins are considered among the most dedicated parents in the animal kingdom, enduring freezing temperatures and starvation to ensure their offspring survives in Antarctica’s harsh climate.
But the taking penguins from the wild to be put on display is nothing new for the marine park. When SeaWorld’s first penguin exhibit opened in San Diego in the 1980s, it was stocked with adult birds taken from colonies on Antarctica -- a process SeaWorld curator Frank Murru called a logistical “nightmare.”
“We worked for six years in the Antarctic before we brought out the first bird,” say Murru in a news report at the time. “We didn’t know what penguins ate, what the incubation time or temperature was for their eggs.”
Eventually, as SeaWorld learned the conditions necessary to hatch penguin chicks at their climate controlled facility, the park instead began to collect eggs from their parents in Antarctica and transferring them San Diego because they were easier to handle.
Since then, SeaWorld has begun its own emperor penguin breeding program, though given the necessity to collect young chicks in the wild, its success rate is presumably low -- which suggests that many of the penguins on display at the marine park today may have been acquired in the same manner.