Penguin caretaker (and matchmaker) at the Academy of Sciences: Vikki McCloskey
Without a doubt, one of everyone’s favorite exhibits at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park is the African penguins. Vikki McCloskey, assistant curator of Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences, oversees those little guys -- as well as the swamp area, and all of the animals and plants in the rainforest.
While making sure the animals in the aquarium are happy and healthy may seem like a glamorous job, Vikki is quick to point out that a large portion of her job is cleaning and feeding. In the mornings, after the penguins wake up and go swimming, Vikki and her team check the nest boxes to see if any of the penguins have laid eggs or are sitting on any eggs. But, she noted, “African penguins nest in their poop, which means there’s also a lot of scrubbing out the nest boxes and scrubbing poop off of rocks.”
Still, she gets to hold penguins every day while doing nail and beak trims, and that’s got to be amazing right? Well yes, but, “a lot of people don’t realize African penguins have the sharpest beaks of any birds on the planet -- they’re so sharp that sometimes you won’t even realize you’ve been sliced until you see the blood.” Oh, and it doesn’t stop there. “Their bones are heavy because they’re aquatic birds,” Vikki explained. “Which means their wings can break your wrist bone with one hard smack.” Yeah, Vikki’s not just smart, she’s brave.
Vikki also develops behavioral enrichment programs for the animals. “All of the penguins are in a training program,” she said. “They step on a scale for fish in the morning and we work with them so we can take their wing bands on and off without getting bitten.”
Claude, the albino alligator has also been trained to station at a certain spot in his exhibit. “He doesn’t see very well,” Vikki said, “so he responds to our vocal commands; he’s required to come to his home station and put his snoot up to the cement island in order to get fed. He’s the most dangerous animal in that exhibit, so we want to make sure we have him on a very strong recall in case something happens in the tank.”
Vikki also works with conservation projects that help highly endangered African penguins. Two years ago, Vikki went to South Africa to do rehab with African penguins at the Southern African Foundation of Conservation of Coastal Birds. Due to over-fishing in that area, the parents aren’t able to find enough food to feed their chicks -- Vikki was part of the team that enabled over 530 chicks to be successfully re-released into the wild.
Vikki also enjoys playing matchmaker. “We don’t collect birds out of the wild and we want to make sure we have a captive population for hundreds of years, so every year we sit in a classroom with a population biologist who looks at all of the genetics of every captive African penguin and match-make.”
Right now at the Academy of Sciences, there are six adult pairs, a male chick, and an adult female who lost her mate. But thanks to Vikki, the single lady will be getting a new mate next spring.
If you want to see the penguins and perhaps catch of glimpse of Vikki during feeding time, check out the live penguin cam.