Volume 6, Number 2, 1997

The penguin predicament

The African penguins huddle around Steve Sarro's feet. They playfully tug at his shoelaces and the cuffs of his pants. "I work with a variety of wild animals that only a handful of people in the world get to work with," says Sarro, curator of birds at the Baltimore Zoo. "I enjoy being part of their world and having them be part of mine."

Sarro, Delaware '81, always knew he would work with animals. As a kid growing up outside Philadelphia and then in Hockessin, Del., he brought all the animals in the neighborhood home.

"If there was an injured bird in the vicinity, it came to our house," Sarro says. "It got to the point where my folks didn't come into my room. It was safer for them that way."

Sarro started his professional career as a volunteer at the Tri-State Bird Rescue in Newark, Del., and later worked at Wilmington's Brandywine Zoo.

He became curator of birds at the Maryland zoo in the fall of 1995, after working as senior keeper there for the last decade. It's Sarro's job to manage not only the approximately 70 penguins, but also the entire avian collection, which numbers 100 species and more than 500 birds.

"We provide the animals with a home and medical care. The animals are here to educate people, and some species, like the African penguin, have some conservation issues that we are dealing with. Animals in zoos and aquariums are the ambassadors for their wild counterparts."

The African penguins have had a home at the Baltimore Zoo for almost 30 years. This colony is the largest collection in this country and second in the world only to the Amsterdam Zoo in Holland.

Sarro is the Species Survival Plan (SSP) coordinator for the African penguin, which means he is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to these black-and-white waddlers.

"If anyone has a question about the species, they call me," Sarro says. He helps guide the propagation group when they make genetic and demographic decisions about the birds in captivity.

In 1994, 10,000 African penguins died from an oil spill off the South African coast. On Nov. 13, a Panamanian ship went down with 29 passengers off Port St. Johns, and, within a week, hundreds of badly oiled African penguins were sighted in Algoa Bay. Some experts predict that the entire population may be extinct by the year 2040. This prediction resulted in the species survival plan.

There are roughly 650 African penguins in captivity in North America, scattered around 42 different institutions, mostly in zoos and aquariums. The Baltimore Zoo alone has produced more than 700 chicks.

The African penguin, which can live to be 30 years old, begins to reproduce at one-and-a-half years. The female produces two eggs per clutch, as opposed to a chicken that produces eight to 10.

After the eggs hatch, the chicks stay with their parents for three weeks. Then, Sarro and his staff hand-raise the chicks to maturity.

"By three weeks, they've imprinted on their parents. They know they are penguins," Sarro says. "They then need to understand and learn that the keepers will provide food and care, and that they are not dangerous. This is why we pull the chicks from their parents at three weeks."

In the wild, there are more than 150,000 birds, but there used to be millions. Sarro says three trends threaten the penguins: commercial overfishing, habitat destruction and oil spills.

The last problem is larger than the accidental, major oil spill in 1994, Sarro says. The oil tankers routinely clean their bilges off the African coast, he says, producing continual slicks that have ruined many feeding grounds.

The birds' nesting areas also have been disturbed by egg gatherers on their islands. They have tried to nest elsewhere, but this usually brings them into contact with civilization. A burrowing nester, the African penguin often burrows under houses along the coast to create a cozy place to hatch eggs. Not only are the nests upsetting to homeowners, but dogs, cats and rats also bother the penguins.

"Africa is an exceptionally poor continent," says Sarro. "People's needs will always outweigh wildlife needs. That's just the way it is. The African penguin is just one of many species at risk in Africa and around the world." Nonetheless, this fall, he will travel to South Africa to discuss with government officials there various ways to maintain the species.

The zoo staff also is hard at work on a vaccine for avian malaria, which affects the penguin population. Sarro says he hopes that his team is close to making it a reality.

"You can't get better than a penguin-they're cute and personable." Sarro says. "I would hate to see these guys become extinct-ever-let alone in my lifetime."

Hooded cranes, wattle cranes and white-napped cranes are three other exotic and endangered birds in the Baltimore Zoo's collection. The waterfowl population includes white winged wood ducks from Southeast Asia and marbled teal, a small African duck. Sarro says the African lesser flamingos at the Baltimore Zoo are the only flock in the world that has bred indoors.

With the Baltimore Zoo's $50-million renovation project, Sarro says he knows he'll have his hands full over the next few years.

"We are going to bring the zoo into the 21st century in grand style," Sarro says. "We want to be more in touch with the public and provide more education. People who come in the zoo gates are much more educated when they go out."

The renovation includes an Australian Outback area, updates to the African section and improvements on the Main Valley, which runs through the center of the zoo.

"The new zoo will have a field station where research projects will take place, including bird rehabilitation and endangered species propagation programs," Sarro says. "All of the new areas will have educational interactives mixed in with animal exhibits."

Sarro talks easily to the children who make up 53 percent of the zoo's visitors. If he weren't a zoo curator there, Sarro says he'd probably be in education.

"Children are our future and wildlife's future," he says. "The more we can teach our children about wildlife, the better our world will be."