All My Penguins Season 2 Episode 4: Colony Keepers

July 26, 2018

Veterinary staff working with an African penguin, plus zoo branding for "All My Penguins"

This summer, All My Penguins, a web series chronicling the lives of the colony of endangered African penguins at Lincoln Park Zoo, is back with more drama, romance, and penguins (well…one more penguin) than ever! Stay tuned as we dive deep into the complex and covert dynamics of the cozy colony!

Anyone with a pet knows “the voice.” It’s the voice you make when you come home from work and call your pet; the voice you use when you’re praising your pet for sitting, staying, or simply being effortlessly adorable. This voice is usually a few pitches higher than your regular speaking voice, and your pet knows it well.

When African penguin keeper Kristin Dvorak opens the door from the kitchen at Robert and Mayari Pritzker Penguin Cove to feed the penguin colony, she uses what she calls her “penguin voice.” The penguins recognize it right away. They waddle out of their nest niches and flop out of the water to greet her at the gate.

“We all usually speak a few pitches higher than normal when we call for the penguins,” says Dvorak. “It’s an audio cue that helps them recognize and trust us.”

Trust is tangible during a penguin feed and it goes both ways. Kristin moves stealthily as she dishes out fish to all of the members of the colony. She calmly coaxes the penguins to hop on a scale voluntarily so that she can record their weights for the month. She remains composed as the penguins descend. Penguins aren’t birds for personal space.

African penguins are one of the few species at the zoo that keepers share space with on exhibit. For health and safety reasons, keepers interact with most other species through various protective barriers.

“Erik likes to rest his head on my legs during feedings. I let him stay because we’re buddies,” says Dvorak.

Other penguins aren’t as people-centric. And penguin beaks? They’re no joke. African penguins rely on their sharp beaks for hunting fish in the wild and it’s important to remember that even the animals at the zoo that waddle are still wild animals. Though some get along swimmingly with keepers and patiently wait for their food, others can get beaky when there’s fish involved! The penguin keepers know each penguin’s personality so well that they’re usually able to diffuse fish fights, but penguin bites are sometimes a part of the job.

Penguin keepers assert that the rewarding aspects of their jobs—especially the bonds they have with individual penguins—outweigh the occasional bite.

But Let’s Hear from the Keepers Directly:

First, Bird Keeper Brianna Larson

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
I love when guests get really excited about meeting a real penguin and learning new things about them during a Malott Family Penguin Encounter. They’re a fascinating species and if I’ve helped get you excited about conserving African penguins, then I’ve done my job!

African penguins are a SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) species. Learn more.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?
The most challenging aspect of working with African penguins is staying abreast of all the threats facing the endangered species in the wild and worrying if we’ll be able to save the species from its rapid decline.

At the zoo, feeding Preston is another challenge. He loves mashing his fish to the point where it’s very unappetizing, or impossible to swallow. Then he’ll flick the fish away and expect a better one, only to do it all again. Every time I think, “I’m sorry buddy, but you did this to yourself!” Sometimes it takes a bit longer to feed the ones that like to play with their food!

Who is your favorite penguin?
It’s hard to choose, but…Erik! He will frequently lay on my foot and fall asleep during feeds, which makes it hard to get up when all the other penguins are done eating! It’s also a good angle for him to preen my
socks, which he also does pretty often.

Now, Bird Keeper Vickie Igleski

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
The most rewarding thing is knowing that we are making a difference for the wild populations of African penguins. We are trialing silicone bands on our birds to see if they could work in the wild. We are offering our penguins prototype artificial nest boxes to see if they’d appeal to penguins in the wild. Also, it’s nice to have a penguin friend to hang out with when you are at work.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Avoiding penguin beaks! They’re sharp!

Who is your favorite penguin?
I think my favorite penguin is Preston. Ever since he came to the zoo he has shown such a sweet personality while still displaying his toughness to be a leader. Now seeing him as a parent makes him an even more special bird because he is protective when necessary, a good provider to his chick and yet still goes on “mini-vacations” away from the family to stay true to himself.

Next, Lead Keeper of Birds Chris Fuehrmeyer

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
The most rewarding part of working with these penguins is being able to have relationships with them in both good times and bad.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?
The most challenging part is being able to keep track of what everyone ate during each hand feeding so it can be documented on a feed chart. They all want to eat first and they don’t take turns. I used to bring out an extra chart to mark down each penguin and fish consumed as I fed, but the penguins started chewing on the paper and they would take my pen, so now I have to remember everything in my head to document it when the feed is over!

Who is your favorite penguin?
After a long time thinking on it, I pick Preston. He reminds me of myself in many ways. I believe we both have Type B personalities, especially when it comes to our leadership roles, such as being relaxed, patient, and friendly.

Finally, Assistant Lead Keeper of Birds Kristin Dvorak

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
*surrounded by penguins during a hand feed*

You’re looking at it.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Keeping track of who’s getting what during a feed. You can’t tell, but I’m talking to myself nonstop in my head to make sure that everyone is receiving their medications and eating enough fish.

Who is your favorite penguin?
Erik is my buddy. We’re tight.

Let’s give it up for our penguin keepers, some of the most dedicated professionals who care deeply for the zoo’s cozy colony of African penguins! Tune in next time when we discuss why you can sometimes see toys, bubbles and even sprinklers in the African penguin exhibit!