How to relaunch an oily, traumatised penguin

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The Independent Online
YOU'VE caught your jackass penguin, soaked - thick as treacle - in black oil; you've loaded it on to a South African Air Force helicopter, the winter storms having prohibited the use of boats; you've flown it to the mainland and transferred it to a truck; you've delivered it to the Sea Bird Centre in Cape Town. Now what do you do?

Eva Foster, honorary secretary of the South African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (Sanccob), has the answer.

She's cleaned a lot of penguins in the past four days. More than 8,000 have arrived at her centre from Robben Island - better known as Nelson Mandela's prison - and Dassen Island in the past three days, victims all of an oil spill that has also devastated Cape Town's holiday beaches.

'What you do is you sit down on a small bench with your legs out in front of you. You hold the bird between your legs, with his head facing forwards. With your left hand you open its beak, which is difficult, because they're very strong and they bite. Then with your right hand you pick up a pilchard - we get them frozen - and push it down the penguin's throat. Then you repeat the procedure with three or four more fish. You do that first because they arrive almost starved. The reason you have to force-feed them is that penguins will not eat dead fish on their own.'

Further to strengthen the woe-begone creatures, Mrs Foster says she feeds them Vitamin B1 to lower their stress-levels, multi-vitamins for energy, and charcoal tablets to cleans out the insides. The pills travel in the dead pilchards' mouths.

'Once you've fed the bird you get a bucket of salt water and you sponge him down. You do this for a couple of minutes and wait for him to relax. Then you fill a 25- litre drum up to four inches below the brim with water as warm as the bird can take, add 300ml of liquid solvent and then, if the bird's strong enough, you hold him by the skull and submerge him as far as possible up to the neck. You let him soak for two minutes and then you start washing him.

'With your bare hands you scrape him with your nails and fingers in a downward motion - no upward motions, because that would damage the plumage. It's very, very traumatic for the bird, so you can't do it for longer than ten minutes. If you're an experienced washer, though, you can get all the oil off in that time. After the wash you rinse him, first in a drum filled with warm water and then one with cold water. Then you place him outside in the pen with all the others.'

But the ordeal is not over yet. Removing the oil also removes the natural oils that provide the birds' waterproofing. This, in turn, makes them reluctant to go into the pools at the Sea Bird Centre.

'The reason why they've been dying is not because they're polluted but because they won't go into the sea, so they die of starvation. We have to chase them into the water here at the centre and then keep them there for 15 minutes. At first they find the water terribly cold, but after a day or so they start enjoying their swims.

'Before deciding if the birds are fit to be released we test them. We put them into the pool for an hour; we take each single bird as he comes out of water; we put him on our laps; we turn him over on all sides and we look underneath the feathers at the soft, downy plumage underneath. When the plumage is 100 per cent dry we know the bird is ready for release. It can take a week for a strong bird to recover fully, three for a weak one.'

It will take a lot longer, though, before the birds are returned to their South Atlantic homes. As parliament pondered yesterday whether to declare the Cape Peninsula - still battered by storms yesterday - a disaster area, the civil authorities were saying it would take around three months to clean up the oil spill.

With 7,000 more stricken penguins expected to turn up in the next few days, Sanccob, which depends on private funds, will have to include 6 million pilchards in its package between now and the end of September. 'How we'll raise the all money I just don't know,' Mrs Foster said.

Readers wishing to contribute to the penguins' cause may can contact Sanccob by fax on 010 2721 5578804.