Baltimore Zoo to send penguin staff to help in oil spill cleanup, rescue


The Baltimore Zoo, home to one of the nation's most prolific African penguin breeding programs, is sending staff to South Africa to join the zoo's bird curator and others in rescuing African penguins threatened by a massive oil spill.

Steve Sarro, curator of birds for the Baltimore Zoo, arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, Saturday. Since then, he says he has been working 16-hour days, feeding and scrubbing some of the 17,000 rescued penguins one by one.

His hands and arms, he says, are a road map of cuts and bruises inflicted by the wild birds, which aren't used to being fed and handled by humans. Sarro has no intention of stopping.

"This is zoo conservation in action," said Sarro, one of several hundred conservationists and volunteers from around the world working with the rescued adult penguins and chicks. "We are experts at caring for animals, and we have the opportunity to do it in the wild right now. In essence, we're saving an endangered species from extinction."

Sarro, reached by telephone, traveled to South Africa last week at the request of South African wildlife authorities. As coordinator of the national African penguin species survival plan, he is responsible for helping to manage the entire genetic and demographic penguin population in the United States. Sarro, 41, has worked at the Baltimore Zoo for more than 15 years.

"With the expertise Steve has ... he's probably as knowledgeable as anyone in the world about the success of rearing the chicks of African penguins," Baltimore Zoo executive director Roger Birkel said.

On June 23, the oil tanker Treasure dumped more than 1,300 tons of fuel oil and 130,000 tons of iron ore when it sank off the coast of South Africa. Some 20,000 African penguins - 44 percent of the world population of the birds - were affected.

Most of the penguins exposed to oil as a result of the spill have been moved from their homes on Dassen and Robben islands to an inland facility where they're being cleaned, fed and rehabilitated. Moving the birds inland exposes them to mosquitoes and potentially to avian malaria, which can be fatal.

Baltimore Zoo veterinarian Dr. Michael Cranfield, an avian malaria expert, will travel to South Africa in several weeks with the avian malaria vaccine developed at the zoo.

The Baltimore Zoo has been working with African penguins since 1967, successfully raising more than 800 chicks and populating exhibits around the world. The zoo also is the leading zoo in research on avian malaria. Since 1978, the Baltimore Zoo's veterinarians and keepers have been working alongside researchers from the Johns Hopkins University to study the parasite and its ecology.

Birkel said he hopes to send more staff members to South Africa, including two senior keepers, to care for the rescued African penguins. He says he is unsure how much this will cost and has been looking for grants to pay their way.

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