We’ve all done it – tossing pennies into a body of water, most often a fountain or wishing well. A childhood pastime remembered fondly by many. However, there is a time and a place. And while most of us know that a zoo or aquarium isn’t an appropriate location to toss coins and other foreign objects – things happen. But would you toss a coin if you knew it would have negative consequences?
On August 8, Kali – a 17-year old African Penguin, underwent an endoscopic procedure at NorthStar VETS in Robbinsville, NJ after ingesting a coin she found while on exhibit at Penguin Island. And while she recovered 100%, it could have been much worse.
See – coins are toxic to humans and animals. Besides being a choking hazard, coins can cause zinc toxicity over a period of time.
Penguins LOVE shiny objects (who doesn’t?!), and curiosity often gets the better of them. Since penguins don’t have hands, they explore with their mouths, using their beaks to pick up objects. Whether Kali wanted that shiny coin for her nest or whether she just wanted to eat it, the result was an accidental ingestion of the coin.
Species react differently after swallowing coins. For penguins, it’s almost impossible to know; as they continue to eat and behave normally, showing no external ‘red flags.’ Luckily, Aquarium biologists understood this reality and risk a long time ago, and subsequently started routinely scanning the penguins with wand-like metal detectors. Once a week, the tiny black and white inhabitants of Penguin Island are examined for foreign objects – a process completely safe to the animals and increasingly common across many AZA-accredited institutions.
However, on August 5, biologists noticed something out of the ordinary during Kali’s scan. Almost immediately, Adventure Aquarium’s husbandry staff and on-site veterinary team went to work; taking blood work and radio-graphs (x-rays), verifying the existence of a coin, while also consulting with NorthStar VETS, a large veterinary emergency and specialty hospital in New Jersey that often works as an extension of, and in collaboration with, primary care veterinarians.
“We always want the best for our animals,” said Michele Pagel, Curator of Birds and Mammals. “For as rare of an issue as this, we needed to turn to someone we could trust; with the equipment on hand and the expertise available to help us at a minute’s notice should any complications arise.”
Meanwhile, Kali was also given mineral oil to see if she would pass the coin naturally. After three days, and no natural progression, Adventure Aquarium’s veterinary team made the decision to take Kali to NorthStar for an endoscopic procedure; a process in which – in this case – a scope is sent into the esophagus to diagnose and treat blockages.
Under general anesthesia and the watchful and concerned eyes of Aquarium biologists and vets, NorthStar’s team of veterinary surgeons performed a one hour procedure in which the coin was successfully extracted.
To the delight and relief of all involved, Kali responded extremely well post-procedure. In fact, later that afternoon she headed back to Adventure Aquarium, where she quickly returned to playing with the other penguins on exhibit – having recovered 100%.
At Adventure Aquarium, we have security cameras to monitor unusual activity, and will continue to explore new, preventative and treatment methods to protect our flightless, feathered friends from foreign objects; measures such as monitoring the exhibit’s overall upkeep (cracks, loose concrete) and daily surveying for stray stones, sticks and coins.
And for our visitors, this is just a friendly reminder to think before you throw. Wait for the mall fountain or wishing well for penny tossing. Even better – save spare change to support penguins by donating to SANCCOB. In fact, our annual African Penguin Awareness Weekend in the fall is the perfect opportunity to pool your change to help penguins in the wild.
Together we all play a role in protecting these endangered species.