A Canadian zoo has launched an investigation into the deaths of seven penguins at the facility, which are believed to have drowned in a state of panic.
“It was obviously something we did not expect to find,” said Jamie Dorgan, the director of animal care for the Calgary Zoo. “It’s a very odd situation, very odd circumstances and nothing we’ve ever encountered before.”
The apparent drowning is the latest in a string of accidents and errors that have catapulted the zoo into the headlines in recent years. In February a 12-year-old otter died after becoming entangled in a pair of trousers that had been given to the otters as a gift by a zookeeper. The zoo said two staff members had been disciplined over the “unauthorized enrichment item”.
The deceased birds were Humboldt penguins which had been moved to a holding area earlier this week, after renovations on their habitat began.
Zookeepers checked in on the penguins on Wednesday afternoon. Early Thursday morning, one penguin was spotted floating lifelessly in the pool. After the pool was drained, another six lifeless penguins were found.
Necropsies showed that they had all drowned. The zoo believes something sent the birds into a state of panic. “We suspect there was some reason that they were in distress and stuck under the water, unable to surface and panicking under the water,” said Dorgan.
“They’re marine animals, they’re pretty adapted to being in water and they thrive in the water more than they do on land. So in order for a penguin to drown you would expect it would have to be some sort of panic, stress-type of situation that would lead to that.”
The incident is not the only unusual animal death at the zoo. In 2009, a staffer was suspended for two days without pay after a capybara – the world’s largest rodent – was crushed to death in a hydraulic door, while in 2007 a six-year-old hippo died less than 24 hours after being transferred from the Denver Zoo as part of an international breeding program.
One year later, 41 stingrays died in an interactive exhibit in which visitors were encouraged to touch the stingrays in the water. The zoo attributed the deaths to a lack of dissolved oxygen in the tank.
Dorgan said the deaths were unrelated. “Anytime that we have any deaths with different circumstances or things out of the ordinary, of course we’re going to look closely,” he said. “We don’t take anything like this lightly.”
The zoo, home to around 1,000 animals, has been working to continuously improve its processes, he added. “Anytime you have live animals, there’s going to be things that occur. We have humans looking after animals and just like humans doing anything, mistakes are going to happen.”
Zoo officials said they were working to minimise these errors, which led to one of the gorillas wielding a knife in 2009 after a zookeeper accidentally left it in its enclosure and a kitchen raid carried out by several gorillas in 2013 after the door to their enclosure was left open.
Some of the high-profile nature of these incidents can be attributed to the zoo’s policy of going public, Dorgan suggested. “The Calgary Zoo has an open transparency policy that most facilities like ours do not have,” he said. “It’s important to us that we make this stuff public and we share it with people so they can understand what does go on at a zoo.”