New England Aquarium treats 24-year-old African penguin to custom footwear

New England Aquarium treats 24-year-old African Penguin to custom footwear. (Vanessa Kahn/New England Aquarium)
New England Aquarium treats 24-year-old African Penguin to custom footwear. (Vanessa Kahn/New England Aquarium)

A New England Aquarium is home to the newest fashion forward penguin.

The 24-year-old African penguin known as, “Beach Donkey,” was diagnosed with a condition known as pododermatitis, or bumblefoot, back in the summer of 2020.

“Chronic pododermatitis can progress to a deeper infection of the underlying soft tissue structures and bone and can also predispose the bird to other health issues,” said Melissa Joblon, an associate veterinarian at New England Aquarium.

“Early diagnosis with routine foot checks, followed by intensive treatment, requires extensive collaboration with the veterinary and husbandry teams.”

The New England Aquarium wasted no time in creating a sketched-out plan, and that included a pair of fresh kicks.

Besides the fancy footwear the specialized treatment plan included medications, surgical procedures, and hands-on foot care. While these methods were put in place to help, “Beach Donkey” still had a lot of work ahead of her.

“Training an animal to be comfortable with this level of interaction and treatment requires very small steps and a positive trainer-animal relationship,” Penguins Manager Eric Fox said in a statement. “Nuanced understanding of each individual penguin and what they find reinforcing is crucial to a trainer’s success and is essential to the health of each penguin.”

The technique was to take her on little trips around the aquarium, incentivizing her.

“We wanted Beach to continue to come to her feeds on exhibit, so we considered other ways to reward in addition to giving her fish. She has always been a curious bird and seemed to really like the opportunity to explore the Aquarium, outside of her exhibit space. Of course, our staff also loved when she would make appearances in unexpected places,” Senior Penguin Trainer Amanda Barr said in a statement.

With time, “Beach Donkey” eased into the footwear, undergoing a successful molt and powered through foot treatments. With the treatments, footwear, and surgeries her foot continues to heal.

While “Beach Donkey” and her foot continue to heal, the aquarium makes it known that they are working with other zoos and aquariums to breed this endangered species of African Penguins back to the coastlines.

Kayla Kissel

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