At the Zoo: Making a splash

Sometimes one just has to take the plunge, and for the baby penguins at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo that means literally.

Sometimes one just has to take the plunge, and for the baby penguins at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo that means literally. Earlier this week, a pair of three-month-old penguins took their first swim under the watchful eye of their keepers. Kesem and Winny, born at the zoo in October, were at first reluctant to get wet, but with a gentle shove from their keepers the two birds dove in at the deep end. The first dip for a young penguin is a rite of passage; there is always the chance that a baby may panic and drown. Head of the Avian Section Yehudit Nesher kept a close watch to make sure there were no tragedies. However, with an instinctive flurry of beating wings Kesem and Winny splashed through the ordeal without mishap. Penguins don't so much swim as fly through the water by beating their wings, and the youngsters quickly took to the task, albeit with some confused navigation. Both birds succeeded admirably in propelling themselves across the top of the penguin exhibit swimming pool, although their progress was somewhat erratic and included several collisions with the rocky sides. Nonetheless, their frantic activity was enough to keep them afloat, and as best one can tell, they seemed to thoroughly enjoy the experience. In captivity, the process of preparing the young penguins for their future life is carefully controlled. For the first couple of weeks they remain with their parents, but then the penguins are taken away for several weeks to be taught the art of feeding from a human hand. The penguins at the zoo are fed three times a day, and each penguin is carefully fed whole fish by hand, a trick the youngsters won't learn just by watching the adults. Aside from the obvious entertainment value this has for visitors watching the show, there is a more serious reason for such personal treatment. Hand-feeding the penguins enables keepers to carefully monitor each penguin's health and administer individual drugs and vitamins when required. As each penguin opens wide for a kipper or sardine, keepers check for any signs of injuries or illness so that the penguins can be kept in the best of health. Penguins are monogamous, remaining with their chosen partner for life. While penguins may look unique to one another, the human eye is less discerning and each of the zoo's penguins wear a wing band etched with an identity number. The penguins are African penguins - Spheniscus demersus - found along the coast of South Africa, although the Jerusalem colony originated from a zoo in Holland. Despite their appearance penguins do not have fur, but rather tightly packed waterproof feathers that not only keep them dry but also trap air close to their bodies to provide warmth and buoyancy in the water. The penguins weigh about 3.5 kilograms, and while the younger penguins are nearly as large as the adults their coats identify them; younger penguins are grayish with white patches, but when they reach eight months of age they shed their feathers and grow a mature plumage showing the sharply defined and distinctive black and white penguin pattern. With their first dip pronounced a success, Kesem and Winny will be given further swimming lessons in the coming days, until they can eventually be released to join the rest of the 20-strong penguin colony. In the meantime they will spend their time confined to a clutch in the corner of the penguin exhibit until they and the older penguins become acquainted with each other. But would Nesher really dive into the chest-deep cold water to save a floundering penguin? "Of course," she says without hesitation, although in seven years she has never been called to rescue. As one might expect, penguins, even babies, take naturally to water. Two more baby penguins are now going through the hand-feeding training and are expected to take their first dip in the coming weeks, by which time Kesem and Winny will already be experts.