Sunday, July 16, 2000

Penguin mommy

Newport Aquarium biologist tends to tiny tuxedoed chicks like their real mothers would

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Crystal Phillips says it so matter-of-factly you'd think everyone did it.

        “I was painting the penguins' toenails and, well, it's difficult, to keep from getting the polish on their down.”

        Uh, back up, please.

(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
        It's like this: Ms. Phillips, senior aquatic biologist at the Newport Aquarium, is hand-raising three Gentoo penguin chicks hatched June 17, 20 and 21. Born at a strapping 3 ounces, they're now half a pound, most of it down — and a bit of it toenail polish.

        “It's how we tell them apart at this age. You can't band wings like we do with adults, because they grow so fast. So we paint their toenails different colors.

        “We won't know their gender for two years, but I'm hoping the one I painted pink isn't a male. I don't want him traumatized.”

        Ms. Phillips, 27, single and living in Independence, has been with the chicks since before they were born. They've been her life, 70 hours a week, for more than a month.

        In early June, she traveled to New York to pick up three penguin eggs donated to the aquarium by the Wildlife Conservation Society and transported them back in an Igloo cooler lined with battery-powered sock warmers.

        Once the eggs were tucked away in an incubator, she started sleeping on the aquarium's concrete floor — “I threw Styrofoam down, so it was OK. The hard part was when the adult birds decided to party at 2 in the morning and honked all night.”

        She whistled and chirped at the eggs, and tapped on their shells (penguin mommies peck with their beaks) to keep them company. She misted the eggs at all hours to keep the humidity up.

        When the time comes, she'll teach them to swim, although she says it's more a matter of introducing them to water and that swimming will come naturally.

        The Tiny Tuxedos display — Ms. Phillips also built the smallish, insulated room herself — has been so popular that even employees stop for a daily visit or two. Usually, the crowd's so thick they have to wait for a look.

        Through it all, Ms. Phillips is trying to avoid having the chicks bond with her, but a certain amount of that is inevitable.

        After all, she feeds them several times a day (fish chunks and formula), makes sure they get exercise (a particularly bizarre sight because at this age the chicks waddle around 'til they're tired, then fall down and sleep), adjusts the room's temperature and attends to myriad other parental-type details.

        This isn't the first time Ms. Phillips has gone into penguin overdrive. Before the aquarium opened, she went to Japan to bring back the exhibit's adults, then spent two weeks sleeping near them to make sure they were adjusting.

        Somebody needs to ask her a few questions about life as a penguin mom . . .

        After a night curled up on a concrete floor, I like to . . . .

        Check the chicks. After that a shower, then getting their breakfast ready.

        One thing I might be able to do better than a real penguin mommy . . .

        I don't think anything. There's no substitute for a real mom. Oh, I might worry more. No, I know I worry more.

        The best thing about caring for these guys . . .

        Watching them grow up. Gentoos are fast growers, about 21/2 months to adulthood (10 pounds or so). The kings (penguins) we have in the exhibit take 8-10 months. But the Gentoo, every day, they're different.

        If penguins could talk about me, they'd tell you . . .

        That I amuse them, the way I'm always checking on them, talking with them, telling them not to stand on each other's heads.

        I'm glad they can't talk because I don't want them telling . . .

        How goofy I can be with them. The things we talk about. And how I'm sooooo particular about cleanliness.

        One thing I've learned caring for these guys . . .

        I don't have kids, but I'd liken it to that. You can't worry enough. There are always fun times and always frustrating times. You always wonder, have I done everything right? Are they OK?

        It's parenting, no matter what the species. And they do talk back, just like real kids. They especially hate getting their physicals.

        Here's what I think they're thinking . . .

        “What's that??” They tried to eat my thermometer. They push aside towels to look under. The day they discovered their toes, they tried to eat them. Then, they tried to eat each other's.

        My biggest surprise . . .

        Is how quickly things change, how quickly they grow up. I knew they grew fast, but seeing it happen, it's a daily surprise.

        I'm happiest when . . .

        I know everything is OK. That they're thriving and everything has been taken care of.

        There are always going to be days when you want to go home and go to bed, but I can tell you, I've never had a bad day with these guys.


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