6 min read

Penguins Mysteriously Drown at Canadian Zoo

"There's no excuse."

Yesterday morning seven penguins were found dead at the Calgary Zoo in Canada. The cause of death? Drowning.

"It's very bizarre," DJ Schubert, a wildlife biologist for the Animal Welfare Institute(AWI), told The Dodo. "It just seems so odd."

The circumstances surrounding the penguins' deaths are odd because penguins are aquatic animals. In fact, they can spend up to 75 percent of their time in water. So the fact that they drowned has stumped everyone. Apparently, even the zoo itself.

This week, the Calgary Zoo stated that it is launching an investigation. "What caused these animals to get into a situation where they would have drowned is something we are going to look at," Jamie Dorgan, the zoo's director of animal care, told CBC News. "It seems to be some stressor led to these birds going into some kind of panic ... but it's hard to say what could have triggered that."

This explanation isn't good enough for Julie Woodyer, the campaign director for Zoocheck, a Canadian animal welfare organization. "This zoo - and most zoos - spend millions of dollars on developing and refurbishing these enclosures, but they're so focused on visitor experience that they often fail to address animal welfare issues," Woodyer told The Dodo. "In this case, they should have the ability to monitor animals 24 hours a day inside their enclosure with surveillance equipment."

The polar plunge exhibit at the Calgary Zoo (2014) | Zoocheck

Woodyer believes the Calgary Zoo lacks this kind of surveillance in the penguin enclosure, even though she thinks they could afford the equipment. "There's no excuse," Woodyer said. "There's millions of dollars that these zoos have, and they haven't spent the money in that way."

These seven penguins aren't the first animals to die at the Calgary Zoo, either. This past February, an otter died when an employee gave him a pair of pants as an "enrichment item," and the otter became entangled in the fabric. In previous years, 41 cownose stingrays died because of a lack of oxygen in their tank and a hydraulic door crushed a female capybara. A 2010 the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the U.S. Association of Zoos and Aquariums performed an audit of the Calgary Zoo that uncovered even more animal deaths.

The "winter quarters" for the hippos and giraffes at the Calgary Zoo (2014) | Zoocheck

"This particular zoo had a lot of unusual captivity related deaths," Woodyer said.

In the wild, Humboldt penguins live along the coasts of Peru and Chile. About a million Humboldt penguins lived in the mid-19th century, but there are only about 3,300 left in the wild today. The Humboldt penguins' biggest threats are commercial fishing, oil pollution and climate change.

While the drowning remains a mystery, Schubert believes captivity played a role in the penguins' deaths. "Living in the wild would always be preferable to living in captivity, because as hard as we humans might try, we cannot emulate their natural habitat in captivity," he said. "There's no way that the polar plunge exhibit provides them with the space or the psychological enrichment that they would normally receive in the wild, and therefore, those animals were in a compromised position."

The Calgary Zoo did not immediately respond to The Dodo's request for comment.

If you want to help penguins - and other animals in captivity - visit Zoocheck to learn about things you can do.