Grand Rapids zoo penguins get annual physical

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — Thirty-plus Magellanic penguins who underwent physical exams Thursday at the John Ball Zoo could be compared to children in some ways — apprehensive, likely wishing they were anywhere but there.

There were strange needles taking blood for samples, shining lights and hands poking and prodding.

There were flapping wings instead of tears, but squirms all the same.

A visit with the doctor can be nerve-wracking stuff, according to The Grand Rapids Press (http://bit.ly/1gJexu3 ).

The John Ball Zoo staff were ready Dec.19 as they carefully drained all the water from the penguins’ giant tank in the aquarium exhibit, as is done once each year after the zoo closes for the winter.

The penguins gathered in one corner, apparently seeking comfort from one another as they peered into the glass of a nearby fish tank, awaiting their procedure.

Watching the fish swim back and forth seemed to captivate their attention almost like a child in front of a waiting room TV screen.

One by one, the penguins were snatched up for their chance under the professionals’ watchful eyes.

“It’s a full physical exam from head to toe,” Zoo Veterinarian Ryan Colburn said as he prepared for a morning of recording data on each of the birds. “It’s a big chore for us here at the zoo.”

Colburn used a stethoscope to listen to heart rhythms and check breathing patterns for any respiratory problems. He carefully swiped a wand-style metal detector over each penguin to check for anything they may have swallowed over the past year. Ingesting a simple penny, thrown over the side of the tank by a visitor, can be fatal for a penguin if the situation isn’t caught, Colburn explained.

Nearby, other staff stepped up with syringes to get blood samples for testing as zookeepers carefully held on, attempting to keep the squirming to a minimum.

The penguins were harnessed and lifted into the air as a scale measured their hanging weight.

Cassandra Bliss, a veterinary ophthalmologist visiting from BluePearl Veterinary Partners, shined lights into the birds’ eyes, carefully looking for any signs of trouble.

Within a minute or two — even while working around the flapping wings — Bliss could detect signs of cataracts. She called out her assessment to a nearby technician who recorded the information.

Bliss explained how the penguins’ corneas are flat, enabling them to adapt to their environment — be it vision underwater or on dry land.

Birds kept in captivity generally live longer because of the natural dangers they sidestep by not braving dangers in the wild, said Cheryl Dykstra, the zoo’s animal care supervisor for birds and fish.

As the penguins age, checking for health problems is even more important. Staff discuss changes in diet or other controlled variables that may continually improve sight or quality of health, she said.

Zookeeper David Blaszkiewicz didn’t hesitate as he reflected back on years of completing the physicals. Staff have the procedures down and can complete them within a few hours, in the penguins’ natural habitat to minimize stress and keep them comfortable.

But it’s always an adventure. “Some of them really fight you beak and nail,” Blaszkiewicz said.

He compared the solid flippers to baseball bats, swinging back and forth. Even with a welding glove on, Blaszkiewicz has suffered his share of scratches and bruises during the examinations. Those marks come with the job.

“They can swing those flippers incredibly hard,” Blaszkiewicz said.

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Information from: The Grand Rapids Press:MLive.com, http://www.mlive.com

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Grand Rapids Press.

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