We are three days into our six week volunteer stint at SANCCOB in Cape Town. SANCCOB does very important work, namely rescuing and rehabilitating injured, oiled, or otherwise weakened African penguins and returning them to the wild whenever possible. In cases where the birds are permanently injured and would be unable to fend for themselves, they are introduced as permanent residents at the centre, and spend their days being hand fed sardines and swimming in the pool... it's a good life.
There is a basic triage system set up at SANCCOB; at admission, the birds are assessed and placed in different groups according to their strength and the severity of any injuries. Oiled birds are separated and get cleaned after a few days of rehydration and feeding. Very weak or sick birds get special care in the ICU; from there, they move into different groups where they get hand-fed fluids, medications, and fish. They have to rebuild their swimming endurance with forced swims of increasing duration, and once they can swim happily for an hour and are in all respects healthy and strong, they are released back into the wild.
I had visions of cuddling up to adorable, waddling penguins, offering them fish as they accepted them -- gently -- from my hands. Instead, I find myself sneaking up to the brood, arms and hands covered in protected neoprene. They snap at my fingers and arms, sometimes my knees and toes, but I'm wearing oilskins and rubber boots, so it doesn't hurt too much. Suddenly I snatch one (there is definitely a technique here) and take it over to be given fluids, or fish, or pills. It. is. terrifying. My heart pounds each time I go for a bird.
I am being terrorized by a three-kilogram penguin. I now think I know where they got that old moniker, the Jackass Penguin.
When not chasing and/or herding penguins, we are scrubbing stuff. Or washing stuff. Or disinfecting stuff. One hundred-plus penguins make a lot of poop, and it's got to go somewhere, right?