As told to the Penguin Post life’s just fine for the 320 rescued residents of the “Penguin Hilton” at Te Maunga in Southern New Zealand. Oiled Wildlife Center manager Brett Gartrell tells us these penguins are being cared for “as if they were staying at a Hilton.” After going through the oil removal process the little blue penguins are settling in and getting used to their luxurious accommodations. The newbies, who are still in recovery, get to swim in a pool every day, but the birds whose feathers have largely regained their waterproofing get to live in the enclosures. They hang out by the pool all day, get catered meals, and the staff bring in upturned fish bins for the birds to roost under at night. Brett says when leaving at night, the center staff hear the penguins “talking” and they’re still at it when they arrive back in the morning.
“When they first come in they’re pretty terrified of us, but fortunately for us and the penguins they lose their fear pretty quickly,” says Brett. Stressed birds bite. To put into context the type of care that these birds receive, only 10 ( less than 3%) of the oiled penguins rescued have died since their arrival. Most of the recovering birds are little blue penguins, and they are the ones that have recovered best. Each of the penguin enclosures can comfortably hold 30-40 penguins and they are fine, says Brett.
Upon arrival, oiled birds’ first stop is a heated tent where they are fed and allowed to regain their strength for a few days before they start on the washing process. It is very stressful for a wild bird and involves being handheld for 30-40 minutes while its feathers are soaked in canola oil to lift up the heavy fuel oil – and then washed off with detergent. After a trial and error process using a variety of detergents, it was discovered that Dawn detergent works best. Upon hearing of this penguin cleaning revelation, U.S. detergent manufacturer Proctor and Gamble didn’t miss a beat and immediately donated and flew 2000 pounds of Dawn from the United States to New Zealand. Brett has no idea why Dawn reduces wash time by 20-30 minutes, but it just does. The locally available detergents just didn’t really cut through the heavy fuel oil, and when washing 30 – 40 birds a day that extra half hour can be very important, although the heavy volume of penguins needing a cleaning has diminished the past few days. “We’re just waiting for the last few to come in for a good for washing,” says Brett. After the wash they go through the rinse, now held in the original mobile unit, a former shipping container Massey University has on standby for such an eventuality. After the 15-20 minute rinse the birds are basically in recovery. They are still unable to be released into the wild because the penguins feathers aren’t waterproof, but they do get to swim in a pool each day. “But, because they’re not waterproof after an hour in the pool they’re brought back in to dry off,” says Brett. “The stress levels in the birds go down amazingly once they can get out and have a swim.” The birds being ready for the new enclosures signal their readiness by taking longer and longer to get out of the pool, and take to circling the center when it’s time to dry off and warm up. The pools at “penguin city” are fresh water because all the wastewater and tank run off has to be able to recycle through the Tauranga City Council’s wastewater treatment plant. “Over the course of a week we will put them in a pool and gradually bring them back up to oceanic salt,” says Brett. The specialized enclosure units are filling with birds that are ready to go back to the sea, says Brett. But, the staff and penguins are also waiting until the immediate threat of the oil spill is removed, so they don’t end up back at the center again.