Emperor Penguins are the largest living penguins and rank amongst the largest of the earth’s birds. Their sleek forms and stark black and white colorations are synonymous with the harsh and remote frozen landscape of Antarctica. In recent years, the plight of the Emperor Penguin has raised concerns as sea ice has continued to deplete and, in some places, vanish entirely, eliminating key habitats that these birds rely upon for breeding and survival. If the effects of climate change go on unchecked, the situation for these unique seabirds promises to grow dire.
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Fortunately, though it is little consolation for conservationists who worry about their wild populations’ success, captive Emperor Penguins do exist in a very limited number of zoos. Unlike many of their relatives, including the similar-looking King Penguin, Emperor Penguins do not adapt well to captivity and the number of zoos and organizations that successfully keep them is quite small. In the United States, the only one is SeaWorld in San Diego, California.
If you know anything about the history of SeaWorld, this may not inspire much confidence. SeaWorld has been the subject of significant controversies over the years, mostly centered around questions regarding the morality of confining wild animals for entertainment purposes — a question that all zoos contend with to some degree — and more pressingly, abuse allegations focused largely on SeaWorld’s infamous orca whales. Tilikum, the orca that is infamous for having killed three people between 1991 and 2010, spent much of his life performing at SeaWorld Orlando.
Scrutiny over the treatment of the orcas and SeaWorld’s other animals has led to some changes in the way that the park markets itself, though some critics maintain the belief that SeaWorld mistreats its animals.
In any case, it is one of the only zoos in the world to have successfully bred an Emperor Penguin chick, a difficult accomplishment. In October of 2023, SeaWorld in San Diego announced that a new Emperor Penguin chick has joined their flock after hatching in September. The new chick, a female, is the first Emperor Penguin to hatch at SeaWorld since 2010. This rare event was not without difficulty.
SeaWorld has reported that the chick’s parents neglected to incubate her egg, so incubation had to be done artificially. Toward the end of incubation, it was noticed that the chick had a beak deformity that prevented her from hatching normally. Human intervention was again required so that she could hatch. Despite these challenges, the chick is reportedly doing well now.
Though SeaWorld is a controversial organization, the ability to breed Emperor Penguins in captivity is a significant accomplishment and may aid in future preservation efforts.
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