Coastal Job: Penguin Rehabilitator
Braving snapping beaks, Curtly Ambrose helps save injured or distressed penguins and other seabirds.
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Some people work in cubicles, others work in kitchens, but the most intriguing workplace of all may be the coast. Meet the people who head to the ocean instead of the office in our Coastal Jobs series.
Curtly Ambrose of Cape Town, South Africa, has been rehabilitating endangered African penguins and other seabirds at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) since early 2019. SANCCOB rehabilitates an average of 2,000 seabirds—half of which are African penguins—each year. Many have injuries from fishing gear, are sick from ingesting plastic, or, most commonly, are undernourished because of declining fish stocks.
Working with birds took a bit of getting used to. At my last job, I worked with cheetahs. I knew those guys could kill me, so I was more alert. But with birds, I thought I could take chances. You wouldn’t think such a small animal could hurt you—penguins don’t even have teeth, but when they bite, it hurts a lot. I still get bitten every day. Handling the birds requires being firm because they’re feisty and strong. At first, people are afraid to hurt them, so they don’t hold them tight enough. I was teaching a volunteer how to handle an aggressive bird once; when she panicked and let go, the bird got hold of my arm. I’ve got the scar to prove it.
My job differs from day to day and depending on the time of the year. In the summer, African penguins molt, replacing their waterproof feathers with a new set. The process takes around 20 days. During that time, they can’t go out to catch fish, so their chicks go hungry. They’d naturally have a higher mortality rate at this time of year. But because African penguins are facing extinction, the penguin rangers in the colonies bring us chicks whose parents can’t feed them and we raise them until they’re ready to be released.
The first thing I did this morning was prep medication for birds in the ICU according to our vet’s instructions—usually antibiotics, painkillers, or antifungal treatments. Then I used a tube to force-feed them a fish smoothie: a blended brown slurry of sardines, vitamins, and minerals. Birds in critical care are often suffering from starvation, and it’s easier for weak birds to consume a smoothie than whole sardines. When they first come in, we tube feed them every two hours and give them meds every eight hours. In between, we clean the ICU and let the birds swim in the rehabilitation pool. Before we release them, they have to be able to swim for at least an hour. Most go back to the wild in two months, but some can stay for more than a year.
We give the birds numbers, not names. I try hard not to get attached to the birds but I’ll never forget AP37. He’d been bitten on his stomach—by a seal, we think—and the wound was filled with maggots. His skin was dead around the area. He underwent multiple procedures, but eventually four months later the wound closed up and we could release him. That felt good; he would never have survived without us.
Without interventions, the African penguin may have gone extinct five or 10 years ago. Some people say we’re fighting a losing battle—but at least we’re fighting it.