New England Aquarium treats elderly penguin with custom footwear

Aquarium staff worked with an African Penguin named "Beach Donkey" for the past two years to treat a foot condition.

An African Penguin named "Beach Donkey" wearing specialized footwear at the New England Aquarium. Vanessa Kahn/New England Aquarium

Meet “Beach Donkey,” a 24-year-old African penguin living at the New England Aquarium with places to be. Despite her advanced age and a potentially debilitating foot condition, she is not slowing down. 

That’s because aquarium staff have worked extensively with the bird over the past couple years, outfitting her with custom footwear and giving her special training. Now, they say the little penguin is thriving. 

In the summer of 2020 “Beach Donkey” was diagnosed with a condition known as pododermatitis, or bumblefoot. Caused by large calluses on the feet, pododermatitis commonly affects both wild penguins and those in human care. Body weight, activity level, age, environment, and genetics are all factors that play a role in the development of pododermatitis. If it is not treated quickly enough, the condition can cause infection in the bone. 

Aquarist Matt Samara gives Beach Donkey a peek inside an Aquarium exhibit during one of her field trips. Vanessa Kahn/New England Aquarium

Staff at the aquarium developed a specialized treatment plan, which included medications, surgical procedures, hands-on foot care, and custom footwear. But to get “Beach Donkey” comfortable enough with all these methods, trainers had to take incremental steps with the bird.  


“Training an animal to be comfortable with this level of interaction and treatment requires very small steps and a positive trainer-animal relationship,” Manager of Penguins Eric Fox said in a statement. “Nuanced understanding of each individual penguin and what they find reinforcing is crucial to a trainer’s success and is essential to the health of each penguin.”

To incentivize “Beach Donkey,” staff members took her on field trips throughout the aquarium, giving her new views of other exhibits and bringing her into staff offices. 

“We wanted Beach to continue to come to her feeds on exhibit, so we considered other ways to reward in addition to giving her fish. She has always been a curious bird and seemed to really like the opportunity to explore the Aquarium, outside of her exhibit space. Of course, our staff also loved when she would make appearances in unexpected places,” Senior Penguin Trainer Amanda Barr said in a statement.

“Beach Donkey” is shown a sea turtle at the New England Aquarium. Vanessa Kahn/New England Aquarium

Slowly but surely, “Beach Donkey” got used to her new footwear, underwent a successful molt, and soldiered through multiple foot treatments. Then came another foot surgery, this one requiring bandages to be applied to her feet for several weeks. In the end, though, the bird’s feet healed enough to withstand hard surfaces once again. Her condition has kept improving since then, and the aquarium now considers “Beach Donkey” to be fully healed from her pododermatitis. 


Visitors to the aquarium hoping to get a glimpse of the resilient penguin should keep an eye out for a green and white bracelet on her right wing. 

In the wild, most penguins are only expected to live between 10 and 15 years. At 24, “Beach Donkey” is one of many penguins at the New England Aquarium thriving at an advanced age. In fact, the majority of the aquarium’s penguin population is considered geriatric. Staff members employ the use of daily eye drops, acupuncture, and physical therapy to keep them fit. 

An endangered species, African Penguins are native to the coastlines of South Africa and Namibia. Overfishing, climate change, and pollution have all negatively impacted their population numbers. The New England Aquarium works with other zoos and aquariums to support breeding programs, field conservation efforts, and more methods aimed at staving off the extinction of these unique birds.


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