October 19, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Pensive looking penguin

Buin Zoo is a marine rescue centre. This happened completely by accident thanks to a single penguin which was found washed up on a beach at Punta Arenas.

It was a King Penguin, dying from a bite on the chest by a leopard seal. The locals who found it did the only thing they could think of, they rang the zoo over 3,000 km away. The zoo vets held an emergency meeting, led by the zoo director: Ignacio Idalsoaga otherwise known as Dr Zoo.

The vets decided it was their duty to try and help the animal, but no-one could think of a plan that would work. Even if by some miracle the penguin was still alive when they got to Punta Arenas, the trip back would kill it. It seemed that there was nothing that the zoo could do, that is until someone had a bright idea.

The air is pretty chilean at that altitude

They called the Chilean Air force.

FACH is the equivalent of our RAF and after a long phone call they agreed to help. A plane was sent manned by FACH pilots to take a team of zoo vets the distance that they needed and to help carry the penguin back again.

The mission was a success and the penguin was delivered safely to the animal hospital, but there they hit a snag. The zoo did not have a cold enclosure. King Penguins must be kept below 10°c otherwise they die so there was therefore only one possible solution: they put him in the fridge.

It was a well ventilated meat fridge the size of a small room and the penguin lived there in between his many operations.  Installed comfortably inside, the plan was for the penguin to recover slowly so that in a few months he would be fit and healthy, ready to be taken back to the Antarctic.

Not everything though at the zoo goes according to plan. The penguin healed completely but his feathers grew back in the wrong order.  In a place like the Antarctic, proper insulation is the difference between life and death. With his new feathers the way that they were, the penguin could no longer survive in the wild.

The zoo did the only thing they felt they could; they named him Fach in honour of the national air force and then built him a special cold exhibit just for him. It was the first enclosure of its kind in South America.

Four years on and Fach is still there, living peacefully in the company of three Humboldt penguins, one of which is blind, another lucky survivor. Thanks to the experience with Fach the zoo now functions full time as a marine rescue centre, answering emergency calls not just for the surrounding area but for the whole of Chile.