'Once, the BBC was filming here and the penguins would take apart the equipment and run away with it, always the most expensive bits. We had to run after them and get it all back. They’re so cheeky.'
There are 93 Humboldt penguins in London Zoo and ‘93 different characters,’ laughs keeper Zuzana Boumrah. ‘They’re very funny – they like to take advantage of the fact there are so many of them and they bully us, pecking our legs and trousers.’
Although there are 18 species of penguin in the world, the zoo’s are all Humboldts. Native to Chile and Peru, they’re comfortable in the British climate. Their enclosure is designed to reflect their natural habitat, with a sandy area for nesting and pebbles at the opposite end, ‘really important for healthy feet’, and water with a current, as they prefer moving water to a still pond.
The penguins are fed on fish, principally sprats, but in the wild, they’re opportunistic and will even swallow ducklings. Their lives are less precarious here: ‘They’re clumsy, but usually good parents. Penguins do abandon their chicks sometimes, but we don’t allow Nature to take its course.’ Lost chicks are raised by the keepers, but ‘at about three years old, they stop being affectionate. That’s when they take partners for nesting. They’re not monogamous – they will flirt!’
All 93 penguins have names, usually in themes, such as Game of Thrones. Counting is done on land because ‘they move too fast in the water’. Zuzana is reluctant to name a favourite, but cites Lopez: ‘I hand-reared her so we bonded. She’s growing up now – she’s more interested in the other penguins.’
Intelligent and capable of learning – such as how to hop onto scales to have their condition checked – for a fish reward, the penguins are unquestionably inquisitive. ‘They get involved in every activity.
‘We’ll rake up the leaves and they’ll carry them away. Once, the BBC was filming here and the penguins would take apart the equipment and run away with it, always the most expensive bits. We had to run after them and get it all back. They’re so cheeky!’
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