March of the (Kyoto) Penguins

During my recent trip to Japan, I spent a day at the Kyoto aquarium with my son (who was studying in Japan at the time). While there, we had the chance to witness one of the most entertaining zoo-related behaviors I’ve ever seen: the “penguin walk.”

15I20 waiting

I’d heard that some Japanese zoos and aquariums “walk” the penguins to keep them in shape (and also to check for injuries), but never anticipated getting to witness the process for myself. I also had no idea how amusing it would be.

Just as we reached the penguins, a trio of keepers entered the exhibit wearing full-length wetsuits. (A fact which had less to do with water and cold, and more to do with the fact that penguins tend to projectile-poop with little regard for who might be standing behind them.) Two of the keepers had buckets of fish, while the third one carried a clipboard and a pen.

15I20 Penguins 1

The penguins immediately clustered around the fish-bearing keepers, who walked in circles around the exhibit, pausing periodically to offer fish and count or examine the penguins. The penguins followed like a class of overexcited kindergarteners…waddling along behind the keepers as fast as their webbed little feet could go.

We saw surprisingly little squabbling over the fish. The penguins seemed to know that everyone would get a share–and also that the birds who followed the fastest and most closely would be the first ones served. They flapped and waddled around for almost half an hour, while the keeper with the clipboard watched them and took careful notes.

15I20 Closeup penguin

A few minutes into the process, I noticed that one of the penguins didn’t join his companions on the “march.” Instead, he stood on a rock across from the keeper with the clipboard, craning his neck in her direction as if trying to see what she was doing.

15I20 watching the watchmen

We thought he’d tire of “watching the watchman” but not even the return of one of the bucket-bearing keepers could draw him away. In the end, he got his fish right there on the rock. He seemed both sleek and a little bit heavy, suggesting that this wasn’t his first time passing on the walk.

The penguins seemed healthy and happy, and they actually seemed to enjoy the walk. Enrichment activities are important for animals in captivity–particularly for intelligent, social species like birds and higher mammals.

The Japanese “penguin walk” technique amused me when I read about it in the news a few years ago, but after seeing it in person, I have to say I like the idea a lot. Not only did it give the aquarium visitors a chance to see the birds in motion–not just sleeping on the rocks or swimming aimlessly back and forth–but it clearly benefited the penguins too.

I visited two different aquariums during my visit to Japan–the Kyoto aquarium on day 1 and Tokyo’s Sunshine Aquarium near the end of my three-week trip. In both cases, I was impressed with the quality of the exhibits and the care the animals received. (If you can believe it…the penguin exhibit didn’t even stink–and they normally do.)

The number and variety of specimens was interesting, too, and we saw quite a few species that don’t normally appear in aquariums in the States. (I’ll share more about them in the weeks to come.)

Do you like watching the penguins at zoos and aquariums? What are your favorite “must-see” exhibits there?