How to Save Penguins in Cape Town

Guest Post by: Felicitas Taube, Blogger on Eco Warrior

When it comes to Seabirds many of us will think of that one Seagull that was brave enough to steal the chips we so desperately wanted after a long day at the beach. But did you ever think about what might happen to them if they eat bad food? Do they get food poisoning just like us? Is there something like a hospital that helps them to regain their strength? Yes there is! At least in Cape Town, where I spent a day at the SANCCOB Sanctuary. 

SANCCOB stands for “The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds” and has been saving Seabirds since 1968. A remarkable woman called Althea Louise Burman Westphal started the project in her own home. She treated oiled penguins after the first major oil spill from Esso Essen and started rehabilitating 60 penguins. She scrubbed them with water and soap in her bathtub, gave them fish every few hours and provided a home in her garden. Even though the penguins had a pool in the garden she still drove two or three times a week to the beach so that the penguins could swim in a tide pool for an hour. She dedicated her life to saving seabirds and eventually in the 1968 she managed to gather support and funding to set the first milestone for SANCCOB. Today SANCCOB is a well known international non-profit organisation that gives injured seabirds a place to heal and rest. It is the leader in oiled wildlife response, rehabilitation, chick- rearing and plays a big part in research as well as education. One of the education programs they offer is to become a First Responder. If a seabird is injured from fishing nets, plastic, a broken wing or it suffers from food poisoning, SANCCOB receives a call and will send out a team who will catch the bird so that it can get treated at the Sanctuary. SANCCOB depends on volunteers who will respond to the bird first, examine the bird and make it feel as comfortable as possible. This is the First Responder´s job.

Each responder is responsible for his/her closest area. Before you are allowed to be such an important person, you will get trained. It takes about 1-3 days depending on how comfortable you are in handling birds and of course if the birds are healthy enough to be trained on. I was lucky enough to spend a whole day at this wonderful place to get trained by Kyle, a Seabird rehabilitator who has been part of the team for four years. Kyle worked as an intern first after he graduated from university. He always had a passion for birds and you could clearly see that when he talks about his work at SANCCOB. Before you get hands-on practice you will learn all the theory behind it. In the lectures you get to know the different species of seabirds that are most common in the area, you will be shown the different age stages and how to classify them. A P1 Penguin for example is a chick with its eyes open, while a P2 is when the secondary down feather is developing. Knowing the difference helps the communication between the station and the responder, while the rehabilitators can already prepare for the new rescue, the responder knows how to handle the bird correctly. Before you catch the bird, you make sure that there is as little stress as possible, the bird already suffers from too much stress just by being hurt. While examining the bird it is best to go from head to feet. Look at the overall state of the bird, is it still responding, flapping its wings? Or is it calm, maybe even not responding at all? 

Check for any broken wings or open wounds. Be careful when handling a broken wing, be gentle but have a firm grip, it is important that the bird is securely handled at all times. To see the bird’s hydration status one of the things you can do is to pinch the skin of the neck and see how slowly or quickly it goes back to normal, you know the bird is dehydrated if it goes down slowly. Throughout the lecture you gain knowledge on different scenarios. Before the bird is examined, you must have a prepared box with you.

In the box there are towels laid down and it is especially important that one towel is rolled up as a “sausage”, that is where the bird’s sternum goes so it won’t have difficulty breathing. While transporting the bird, it is important to create a calm environment. There should always be some ventilation through the car so that the bird won’t overheat, like an open window. Once you arrive home, check on the bird again, see if it is still comfortable. If the bird is too cold, make a warm water bottle to place it under the towel. If the bird is too warm, make sure there is enough air flow. At all times the responder and SANCCOB is communicating and now at this stage is discussing if the bird can get picked up or should stay for a night in the home of the responder. Once in the rehabilitation centre the bird gets examined again, treated as needed and on his way back into the wild, it will go through different units in the sanctuary. Depending on age and injuries, the bird shares spaces/ pens with other birds. Sometimes birds are sent to ICU areas where they need constant monitoring or medication, while others go to the Rehab pen and the small chicks are cared for in the nursery. 

Throughout the day Kyle showed us around and explained all the units. It was impressive to see how advanced and with how much passion everything is built. With little space SANCCOB created a big, loving home for many birds.

After we finished our theory, we got changed into our “bird gear”. One pair of big rubber pants, crocs and two long sleeves made from old wetsuits, these serve as protection which I later discovered is extremely necessary. You must also wear one glove and glasses for eye protection. Finally I was allowed to enter the penguin pen. My task was simple: catch the bird and put it into the water pool. After Kyle showed how it’s done, I tried my luck. Of course, it wasn’t as simple as it looked. First you go down on one knee to be on the same level as the penguin. While crawling on one knee around that pen you need to keep watch for the other birds, they are wild animals and are not amused by some “green huge penguin” disturbing them. The technique you use on penguins is to grab between the left flipper with your gloved hand. The grip needs to be strong because the penguin will try to run off and will try to bite you. With the other hand you need to quickly grab the head, right below the eyes. It is not easy to handle all of this at the same time while the penguin is moving and biting. Once you get a good grip of the head you let go of the flipper and move your arm underneath its body. Now you need to pull the penguin close to you and put pressure from both, underneath and on top of the body. The goal is to make it as comfortable and safe for you as well as for the penguin. Holding the head is the most important part, penguins are extremely strong and will hurt you. It took me several tries to get comfortable with the handling of the birds, personally I am scared to hurt the little guys. 

When all the penguins are in the pool, they stay for up to an hour, depending on their rehabilitation process. In the beginning, when they are introduced to the pool they are allowed to leave the pool whenever they want. Our practice continued with the flying birds. The procedure is slightly different, because their wings are more fragile and have hollow bones, you don’t hold onto them. You directly go toward the head with the same grip used for the penguins and then in one move pull the bird close to you, get his wings folded and reach underneath its body. Let me tell you that I came out of there with a lot of bite marks on my hands and arms even through the protection! 

At all times the birds come first, so if you need more practice you can try again later that day or come back on another day. As a first responder you will be able to care for an injured bird, that includes how to tube them if necessary. Through tubing the bird gets important fluids and electrolytes for when it is severely dehydrated. Now when you think that catching a bird sounds difficult, let me tell you about tubing. Once the bird is wrapped in a towel, the bird must be held between your legs. The biggest challenge is to hold the beak open with one hand, hold the syringe underneath your arm to then take the tube to insert it into the oesophagus. Feeding fish is definitely easier! The bird will open its beak all alone and can’t wait to get more fish!

After all the learning, practising, a few more bruises and a fishy smell on you, a long day at the sanctuary ends. You will be given a box full of the supplies you need for your first rescue. 

Now the phone stays on and if a bird in your close area is reported, you will be the first one to respond and rescue the bird. My biggest respect goes to the great team of SANCCOB, all the volunteers and all people involved in making the world a better, safer place for Seabirds. Thank you for this experience.

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