Animal Tales

Checking for Change

Plush-crested jay

Zookeeper Heather Neldner feeds the Humboldt penguins.

When the busy summer season comes to an end, Humboldt penguin zookeeper Heather Neldner is gearing up for a busy day of penguin health checks. Every year the penguins need to get an X-ray to make sure they didn’t swallow any coins that people may have thrown into their pool. “Coins dissolve in their stomach and they get metal poisoning, and they can die from that. It’s mostly pennies we are worried about because pennies have zinc and they get zinc toxicity,” Neldner explains. If a coin is found that day, immediate action is taken by the veterinary staff to get the coins out.

On the day of the coin check, Neldner has to take each of the 17 penguins from their exhibit to the Animal Health Center behind the flamingo exhibit. The animals are trained to walk into a crate to be transported. Neldner takes two at a time, meaning a lot of trips back and forth. “I usually try to do all my difficult penguins first when I’m strong enough to handle everyone. Because as the day goes on I get tired and it’s harder to hold on to the large, strong penguins,” says Neldner. In addition to the X-ray, the penguins may need to get a nail trim or a blood draw, and Neldner needs to hold them for those procedures.

The last penguin to go in for a check is Piper because, according to Neldner, she’s the most likely to have swallowed a coin. “Penguins eat coins because they’re shiny and they can look like fish.” In 2017, Piper had 11 cents (a dime and a penny) removed from her stomach. All the penguins had a clean bill of health and no coins were found in 2018 and again in 2019.

From the November-December 2019 issue of Wild Things