oil spillPenguins are incredible animals. The fascinating facts about these flightless birds could fill pages. But I have been a penguin keeper for almost 18 years, and most visitors to Seneca Park Zoo ask several of the same great questions. This blog is in honor of all of those people who have been dying to know the answers to some of the mysteries of the African Penguin at Seneca Park Zoo!

How do you tell all of those birds apart?”

The simplest way to tell who’s who is that all of the penguins at the Zoo are banded using a special color-coded system. Males are banded on the left, females on the right, and offspring of pairs are banded using the same colors as their parents, the older chick banded on the left (until the sex can be determined at a later date). All keepers who train to be penguin keepers are required to memorize these bands so they can identify each bird.

Plumage can also be a helpful factor in determining who’s who. Juveniles (penguins younger than 18 months of age) have a dark gray plumage from head to toe. Adult penguins (older than 18 months) have the traditional black and white “tuxedo” plumage.

Keepers who have worked around the birds for a long time can also tell each penguin apart by certain physical characteristics such as beak size, height, unique markings, and even the way they walk!

Finally, each penguin has a spot pattern on their chest that is as unique to them as our fingerprints are to us! That spot pattern stays the same even after the penguin’s yearly molt. Some penguins only have three to four spots; others may have a dozen or more!

Why are they so small?

There are 17 different species of penguin found only in the southern hemisphere. The largest species, the emperor penguin, is just shy of 4 feet; the smallest is the little blue, or “fairy” penguin, which stands just over a foot in size. An African penguin is approximately 2ft tall and weighs between 5-9lbs. Most people are probably quite used to seeing the emperor penguin in movies and on television, therefore are a bit surprised to see a small species like the African penguin.


Why aren’t penguins aren’t out all the time in the winter?

While it’s true some penguins love the cold, the penguins here at the Zoo are native to the coast of South Africa, making them a temperate species of penguin. Believe it or not, most species of penguins live in temperate climates. A couple can even be found in tropical climates! The media does tend to focus on the penguins in Antarctica, probably because the landscape is so beautiful and because of the stark contrast with the black and white sea of penguins.

Our penguins typically stay in a heated room inside when the temperature falls below freezing. If there isn’t a foot of snow on the ground and it’s sunny out, we always allow our penguins the choice to stay in or go outside.

When the penguins aren’t outside, where are they?

Our penguins are quite spoiled! They have a large holding room, which is heated in the winter and air-conditioned in the summer. There is also a pool in their holding room as well as lots of environmental enrichment. This is where the penguins’ “nests” are as well. African penguins are burrow nesters, so we mimic that by using sky kennels lined with an absorbent recycled newspaper product. Each pair of penguins, and most singletons, have their own “nest” which they may inhabit for many years and are very protective over!

FamilyWhy don’t the penguins at the Zoo swim very often?

This is by far the most frequently asked question by Zoo visitors. The answer is they absolutely do, just not on exhibit! The penguins have a small pool in their holding room that they all LOVE and swim in often!

Over the years we have made many attempts to get the birds to use their exhibit pool instead of the holding room pool, and about six birds will swim for fish. We have attempted to feed only in the water, used hip waders and wet suits to join them in the water, taken away access to their small pool, and a few years back, actually made some major renovations to the exhibit incorporating ideas from zoos where the penguins actually swim! Unfortunately, we still don’t have a colony of exhibit-swimming penguins.

In nature, penguins do not swim for recreation. They swim out of necessity; to eat and to keep their plumage (feathers) in good shape. We feed on land to make sure we get a good look at each penguin daily, and the inside pool serves as an adequate place to keep their feather quality in tip-top shape. In fact, when we took away access to the inside holding pool, our penguins simply stopped swimming and this resulted in some cases of poor plumage. Animal health is top priority, so we immediately gave the birds access back to their little pool.

Finally, our penguins spend approximately six hours per day on exhibit. This means 18 hours is spent in their holding room, which is a very desirable place for them. It’s entirely possible that they just choose to swim in the environment that is most comfortable and familiar.

How can penguins be endangered? When you see pictures of them, it seems like there are millions!

Four species of penguin are considered “endangered.” These are the White-flippered, the Erect crested, the Galapagos, and the African penguin. Five species are listed as “vulnerable,” two  as “near-threatened,” and six as “lower risk.” The lower risk is the species found furthest south.  The pictures we typically see of thousands of penguins in one place are of this species.

Boulders Beach

African penguins were added to the Endangered Species list in June of 2010. The African penguin  is listed as such due to the very rapid decline of the species resulting from competition with the commercial fisheries for food as well as shifts in prey population. Oil spills also account for a large percentage of the fatalities of adult African penguins. Because they live in such a condensed range, one oil spill could have a catastrophic effect on the total population and breeding success of the African penguin.

What can I do to help African penguins?

The South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) has been the leader in African penguin conservation since the late 60s. SANCCOB is a wonderful organization to donate to. They have a very user-friendly website that describes all of the conservation initiatives in which they are involved.

Did you know that by visiting Seneca Park Zoo, you are also helping African penguins? Last year, Zoo visitors donated nearly $14,000 by rounding up their admissions purchases and making other small donations.

These small actions are helping to conserve this species in the wild. Thank you for your support!

If you want to learn more about African penguins, check out Spring Break Programs later this month.


–Kara Masaschi, Zoo Keeper

A day in the life

If you ask zoo keepers what they do, you will most likely get a different answer from each of us. The role of a zoo keeper once focused on the general care of the animals: they cleaned cages and fed the inhabitants. But today, that aspect of our day is only the tip of the iceberg.

The core of our responsibilities remains the general care of the animals, but the definition of “general care” has changed. Cleaning enclosures is more than just “picking up.” When cleaning enclosures, zoo keepers are now more aware of disinfectants and the pathogens they protect against. We focus on giving the animals an environment that is both sanitary and comfortable. Adequate bedding, shelter and easy access to food and water are a must.

Photo by Marie Kraus

Photo by Marie Kraus

Feeding the animals at the Zoo is no easy task. Every animal has different needs and we offer a wide range of diets to meet those needs. Preparing an animal’s diet can take a large portion of our day. We can weigh up to 100 pounds of fish and 50 pounds of meat in one day. The fruit and vegetables we go through would fill a refrigerator and more. I can’t even count the number of insects we pass out.


Photo by Kelli O’Brien

Training is becoming the cornerstone of animal care at the Zoo. Training programs can be as simple as an animal moving from one enclosure to another, or can be as elaborate as asking an elephant to present its feet for a trim. Training not only provides the animals with the mental stimulation they need but also helps us to accomplish other added responsibilities.


Photo by Kelli O’Brien

Medical care is just as important for a zoo animal as it is for people and their pets. The dedication of zoo keepers to keep their animals healthy is paramount. Vaccinations, daily medications and even anesthesia are all achieved through training and the bonds that form between zoo keeper and animal. Zoo keepers are the first line of defense when it comes to the animal’s health.


Photo by Tina Fess

Photo by Ken Traub

Photo by Ken Traub

We all like to have fun and explore new things. Enrichment is just that: a way for our animals to have fun. We provide new toys, scents, puzzles and surprises that keep the animals guessing as to what may come next.


Photo by Kelli O’Brien

Photo by Tina Fess

Photo by Tina Fess

The list of jobs that a zoo keeper does can go on and on. Once our daily animal care is done we focus on making the grounds look good, help with minor maintenance issues, serve on a variety of committees, and even extend our reach beyond the borders of the Zoo by serving on Species Survival Plan committees through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and other national and international groups.

A day in the life of a zoo keeper is a busy one. The list of things to do never ends. The dedication and commitment of the zoo keepers keeps that list moving forward. Most of us, if asked, would say there is no place we would rather be. It is both a privilege and an honor to be in the company of a zoo animal.


–Robin English, Zoologist

Progress restoring the Genesee

The Remedial Action Committee (RAC) is a group of scientists and environmentalists, including the Zoo’s Director of Animal Health and Conservation Dr. Jeff Wyatt, that oversees progress restoring the Rochester Embayment EPA Area of Concern (AOC).

The AOC, including the lower 6 miles of the Genesee River adjacent to the Zoo and Lake Ontario shoreline between Bogus Point (Parma) and Nine Mile Point (Webster), was designated in 1987 by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement as a heavily polluted area due to historic industrial activities. 43 other AOCs have been identified across all of the Great Lakes in the United States and Canada.

Photo by Charlie Knauff

Photo by Charlie Knauff

Map provided by EPA

Rochester AOC Map, provided by EPA

We have made tremendous progress restoring our impaired lower Genesee River & Rochester harbor environment, which has seen everything from beach closings to fish & wildlife losses due to pollution. Our thriving population of 5,000 lake sturgeon, reintroduced in the Genesee since 2003, best exemplifies a healthier river ecosystem for wildlife and people.

Photo by Dr. Jeff Wyatt

Sturgeon thriving in the Genesee, photo by Dr. Jeff Wyatt


Photo by Dr. Jeff Wyatt

A sturgeon and storm drain exhibit at the Zoo, photo by Dr. Jeff Wyatt

The RAC continues to work diligently gathering scientific evidence so the Rochester Embayment AOC may some day soon be delisted.

Find more information about the Great Lakes and Rochester AOC Restoration here.


In exhibits that include more than one of any given species, it can often be difficult to tell one animal from another.  Ever wondered how keepers distinguish one from another?

One way keepers and Zoo visitors can distinguish between members of a species is the size of an individual. One good example of this is the elephants. Lilac is the smallest elephant, weighing a little under 8,000 pounds, while Chana and and Genny C weigh almost 9,000 pounds each! The elephants can also be identified by the size and shape of their tusks. Genny C has very long tusks, while Moki has short and stubby tusks.

Note all of the differences between the elephants. Photo by Lindsay Brinda

Note all of the differences between the elephants. Photo by Lindsay Brinda

When looking at birds, we can sometimes tell them apart by their bills. Examples of this can been see in both the Scarlet Ibis and the Sandhill Cranes. One bird has a significantly longer bill than the other. If they are roughly the same size, the length of the bill can be a great way to tell them apart!

Notice the differences in bill lengths between each bird. Photos by Dan Frick

photo by Dan Frick

The color patterns on some animals can also help to identify an individual. Some of the frogs here at Seneca Park Zoo are very close in size, but their color or spot patterns can help us to identify them. Sometimes a zoo keeper will use pictures or diagrams of each frog to help identify them while weighing or examining an individual.

Can you see the different spot patterns on each frog? Photos by Dan Frick

Can you see the different spot patterns on each frog? Photos by Dan Frick

photo by Dan Frick 4

Other ways to identify individuals can be the overall color of an animal. Even though they are the same species, often times their coloring is darker or lighter!

Some sturgeon are a brown color, while some are lighter and more grey colored. Photo by Dan Frick

Some sturgeon are a brown color, while some are lighter and more grey colored. Photo by Dan Frick

photo by Dan Frick 6

Sometimes individuals can have very small differences that can help keepers and visitors identify them. With twelve baboons at the Zoo, some traits that are used include their size (height/weight), the color of their coat, coloration of their eyes or skin on their face, the length of their tail, or distinguishing traits like their teeth showing or a tongue sticking out!

Can you spot any differences between Pico de Limon and Samson? Photos by Dan Frick

Can you spot any differences between Pico de Limon and Samson? Photos by Dan Frick

photo by Dan Frick 7

All of these traits can help keepers and visitors distinguish between individuals of a species. This is important because zoo keepers need to be able to identify the animals they work with to make sure they are staying healthy. Being able to identify them, means we can make sure all animals are eating, drinking and acting normally.

Next time you are at the Zoo, see if you can find differences between animals of the same species!

New York’s most endangered animal, the Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail (COAS), now has a new life support strategy preventing extinction. The COAS, which numbers at approximately 400, lives in only one place in the world–and is at risk of being wiped out with one catastrophic event (e.g. a rock slide). It has lived for thousands of years on one rocky ledge in the spray zone of Chittenango Falls, just 100 miles east of Rochester.

COAS with bee tag, courtesy of NYSDEC

Chittenango Falls

During the last two years, Cody Gilbertson, a graduate student at SUNY Environmental Sciences & Forestry (ESF), has developed a highly successful laboratory housing and breeding program with 100% survival of offspring over two generations numbering in the hundreds!

Cody Gilbertson, ESF graduate student, demonstrating laboratory care of COAS

Cody Gilbertson, ESF graduate student, demonstrating laboratory care of COAS

Seneca Park Zoo veterinary technician Robin English LVT, examines snail eggs

Seneca Park Zoo veterinary technician Robin English LVT examines snail eggs

At a recent Snail Summit held at an ESF laboratory, participants from United States Fish & Wildlife Service, NYS Parks Department, NY Department of Environmental Conservation, Rosamund Gifford Zoo and Seneca Park Zoo gathered to discuss the next steps for saving the COAS from extinction. These steps may include development of two additional ex situ laboratory breeding programs, supplementation of the current population with lab reared snails and consideration of translocation to another habitat.

Seneca Park Zoo resources have been devoted over the past fifteen years to participating in field surveys and leading the veterinary support of both in situ and ex situ initiatives. These successes and plans demonstrate the impact of and power of partnerships using science to save species from extinction.

Dr. Jeff Wyatt DVM, MPH, DACLAM, Director of Animal Health and Conservation

Photos by Dr. Wyatt unless otherwise noted.

When you walk through the Zoo, you might see a number of unexpected objects in the exhibits: cardboard boxes, paper lunch bags or even a plastic slide. These items are used for enrichment. As keepers, it’s our job to make sure the animals we care for stay healthy, both physically and mentally. By providing the animals with enrichment items, we can encourage them to behave as they would in the wild.

For example, by giving the tigers boxes with food inside, we hope to evoke the natural behaviors involved with hunting. They must find the boxes using their sense of smell, and then they have to work to get the food, using their claws and teeth the same way they would in nature. This helps keep their minds sharp and active.

Seeing an animal interact with their enrichment can be very exciting for our visitors! With our larger animals, their enrichment items are often very clear to see; it’s hard to miss the barrels hanging in the elephant barn or the termite mound in the orangutan exhibit.

But what do we do for smaller animals?

If you have been to the Zoo during the summer months, you may have had a chance to meet some of our education animals. These are animals that aren’t on exhibit, but rather come out for special programs where people are able to meet them up close. These are the same animals that are featured in our other education programs, such as ZooMobiles, ZooClasses and birthday parties. When they aren’t out on programs, it is my job to make sure they are receiving the same care as our other animals, and this includes providing them with (size appropriate) enrichment.

My favorite part of the day is coming up with new and exciting ways to exercise our education animals’ minds. When coming up with enrichment, I want to think about what the animal would do in the wild and try to bring that behavior out.


For example, our armadillo Doug loves to dig for insects. I sometimes will give him a huge pile of wood chips, pine shavings, and cat litter with mealworms tucked inside. To get the worms, he has to dig though the pile, which he does with enthusiasm.

IMG_0300Our hedgehogs and short-tailed opossum also love to forage for insects. By hanging paper towel tubes in their enclosures with meal worms inside, we encourage interaction with their surroundings.

While food is always a good motivator for an animal to get active, it’s not the only way to enrich an animal. Sometimes a bag filled with paper is enough, or a box sprayed with perfume.  The unfamiliar scent is interesting and therefore will encourage exploration. Plus, boxes and paper bags make great new hiding places. Changing the arrangement of their enclosure or adding new furniture can be a great form of enrichment as well.


There is never a slow day working at the Zoo, and making sure the animals have the opportunity to use their minds is one of our many responsibilities (it’s also one of the best). It’s a chance for the animals to express themselves and a chance for us to really get to know each animal’s personality on an individual level.

Big or small, enrichment is a vital part of the day for every animal at the Z

–Hannah Comstock, Zoo Keeper

Update on the Wolves

Many people came to know and love the Mexican wolves during their four and a half years spent at our Zoo. I get asked on a daily basis where they are and/or how they are doing. The short answer is they are doing great!

The three brothers left our Zoo in November for the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York. They lived together for almost a month before Durango and Chico headed out west in December. They moved to The Living Desert in Palm Desert, California, and are adjusting to life there very well.



Diego, aka “the dark one” and M1059, stayed on at the WCC in NY state to hopefully breed with one of their females, F1143. He is 8 years old and she is 7 years old, and they share the same birthday, April 22nd. Neither one of them had ever lived with any other wolves before, other than their own families.

Diego’s Mate

About a week after Diego’s brothers left him, they started the introductions to his new potential mate. Their enclosure is a full acre of wooded land with a fence through the middle dividing it in half. To begin the intros, he was on one half and she was on the other, so they could get to know each other slowly. Everything progressed in the right direction so, after a few weeks, they opened up the gates between them so they could have full access to each other. So far, so good!

Diego and his mate

Diego’s younger half-brother and his new mate live in another enclosure there, and they are recommended for breeding this year as well. All of their genes are very valuable among the Mexican Grey Wolf population, so hopefully there will be two litters of pups there this spring. All of them would be considered as potential release candidates in the future.

In the meantime, keep your fingers crossed, and if you want any further information, visit nywolf.org

–Heidi Beifus, Zoo Keeper

Photos courtesy of Wolf Conservation Center