On Thursday, July 18, a Gentoo Penguin chick died due to complications with its intestinal tract. The chick hatched on June 9.
With all baby animals, the early weeks of life are fraught with obstacles to survival, and the chick was being closely monitored by husbandry experts and the aquarium’s veterinarians during tri-weekly physical examinations.
During recent examinations, the chick’s weight gain — a critical sign of healthy development — had noticeably slowed. To counteract this decline, a team of animal care specialists began administering fluids and attempted to supplement its feeding.
The chick continued to be physically active in recent days, but in the last 48 hours, it stopped its feeding response, the movements that indicate to its parents that it wants to eat.
“Young birds that feed from their parents tend to hold their heads up and bob, which entices the parents to regurgitate food into their mouths,” says Aquarium Veterinarian Dr. Chris Keller. “This little bird ceased to ask for or want food from its parents.”
A full pathological report from an independent lab won’t be available for two to three weeks, but a preliminary post-mortem examination found an abscess on the chick’s intestinal tract. This abscess may have resulted from a perforation from a fish bone, but a conclusive cause has yet to be determined.
In humans, an intestinal abscess would be uncomfortable but treatable through surgery or antibiotics. In such a young bird, however, it caused the intestinal tract to cease functioning, leading to the chick’s death.
This condition is not contagious and poses no danger to the rest of the Aquarium’s penguins, including a Macaroni Penguin chick which hatched on the same day as the Gentoo. The second chick continues to be closely monitored by Aquarium staff and has exhibited robust growth and overall health.
“The Macaroni chick is doing very well,” Dr. Keller says. “Its weight is right on track. It’s just a steamroller.”
The death of any animal is difficult for the staff members who so diligently care for them, a responsibility that often requires their attention long after the Aquarium closes.
“Losing an animal is definitely the hardest part of our jobs,” says Senior Aviculturist Loribeth Lee. “As a caregiver, I don’t turn my job off when I go home. I worry about the animals, I keep my phone on at night and I am on call around the clock if needed. I am invested in their well-being and want them to have the best and healthiest life here at the Tennessee Aquarium.
“Even though this little one was less than 40 days old, you still form a connection with them and do everything in your power to make sure they are thriving. I miss this little chick, but our team is now focused on the other penguins and the other penguin chick. That helps us deal with this loss.”