Penguins at the National Zoo: A Failed Experiment?

I struggled writing this piece, but I have to keep in mind that many stories from zoos past are not uplifting. It only highlights how much zoos have changed their focus from animal displays to research, welfare, and conservation of the animals. It also serves as a reminder about how far humans have come with advances in medicine. Zoos are a much better place because of these improvements.  —Karie


Some animals that you surprisingly will not find at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo are the extremely popular penguins. After learning that the zoo used to have these affable birds, I had to do some digging into their DC story.

What I found was that during the time that the zoo featured penguins, they were a difficult beast to manage in captivity for a multitude of reasons. Relationship status: It’s Complicated.

In his book published in 1930, National Zoo Director William Mann noted, “We have never had much success with penguins. Of six Humboldt’s penguins (Spheniscus humboldti) from Chile, none lived longer than two months, as they were all affected with aspergillosis, a fungus disease of the lungs, when they arrived, and had lived for a week or so previously on an unnatural diet of bread and water. A rock-hopper penguin (Catarrhactes pachyrhynchus) from southern New Zealand lived for one year and five months” (234–35). One of the rockhoppers died from injuries in a fight with two other birds. (The Washington Post article about the incident blamed the dreadful summer heat for the fight.) Additionally, penguins are susceptible to heat stroke and bacterial infections. Their living environment needs to be climate controlled with excellent ventilation systems. Care during transport to the zoo and upon arrival is vital (dehydration and heat exhaustion are common). Unaccustomed to eating dead fish, many have to be force-fed at first. In a nutshell, they are a very high maintenance bird.

These hazards did not stop the zoo from trying, however.

In 1933 the zoo acquired four Galapagos penguins from the Hancock Pacific-Galapagos Expedition, but the next year they were not listed in the zoo’s collection of animals. One can only assume that they succumbed to aspergillosis or other illnesses that plagued so many captive penguins. That same year the zoo also attempted to maintain a collection of African (jackass) penguins. Over the next year, sadly, the zoo would lose six of them to illness.

Still, the zoo kept trying. In late 1936 the National Zoo acquired six more African penguins after completing a major addition to the bird house, which included an improved refrigeration system and wading pool.

SNZ-penguin-enclosure-1937
Penguin enclosure in the bird house at the National Zoo. Image from the 1937 Smithsonian Annual Report.

In 1938, as Hitler was invading countries in Europe, two of the birds provided DC with a much-needed diversion from the growing unease on the world stage. Penguin couple Millie and Moe produced two eggs—the first to ever appear at the zoo. And according to the Washington Post, no African penguin had been hatched successfully in any American zoo. Millie and Moe took turns incubating the eggs around the clock, while the city had to wait a month for the outcome. Meanwhile, another penguin couple began building a nest, as crowds poured into the bird house to catch a glimpse of the action.

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Headlines in the Washington Post

After forty days (March 12), one of the eggs finally hatched—a “tiny clump of fuzz,” creating lots of buzz. The bird house was packed with photographers and reporters, along with DC residents trying to catch a glimpse of history. A local radio deejay even broadcasted the chick’s every move over the airwaves. The chick (whose gender was unknown) was named Malcolm, after Malcolm Davis, the bird keeper that spent most of his time attending to the needs of the parents-to-be. Over 20,000 visitors flocked to the bird house to catch a peek at the new arrival. (It’s not a surprise that the zoo topped 3 million visitors that year.)

Behold the Ides of March—the second egg hatched on March 15. The chick, named “Minnie,” gave the zoo another reason to cheer.

Less than a week later, first-born chick, Malcolm, died. On the positive side, the zoo’s director Mann noted, this birth was a boon to science, and the chick would be given to the National Museum for research and display. Then, on April 3, the only African penguin chick in captivity, Millie, died. Millie was transferred to the National Museum to be put on display with Malcolm. The zoo was devastated, but they remained optimistic that their two breeding couples would continue to hatch eggs. In fact, a month later, Mollie laid two more eggs. They, however, never hatched. The other penguin couple, Ada and Tux, weren’t having success, either.

The next year, in June 1939, Mollie again gave the zoo a shot of optimism. One egg hatched, and the little chick seemed to be thriving. At 24 days old, little Minnie penguin made his/her debut. Again, the National Zoo made history—Minnie was the oldest penguin chick to survive at the time. Sadly, the streak ended at 37 days. Minnie passed away, leaving the zoo officials scratching their heads. There was a reason that penguin births were so rare in captivity. But why? To add to the mystery, mother penguin Mollie died suddenly on August 15. The zoo could only speculate that she died of a broken heart after losing her baby (and further posited by the autopsy). In tribute to Mollie, the Washington Post called her the penguin that would not quit. She made history. She was the matriarch of the zoo’s favorite family.

(Side note: This was not the only death from a broken heart the zoo experienced in the penguin colony. In 1947, the zoo’s emperor penguin died after his female friend passed away. He refused to eat, had to be force-fed, and eventually collapsed and died in his enclosure.)

Even after the failure to raise a penguin chick to maturity, the zoo continued to nurture its penguin colony, making sure that the adults stayed healthy and thrived. One question: should they try to find Moe a new mate?

Another difficulty in keeping penguins, for most zoos, is the cost to transport them from their native areas. The National Zoo, however, has always benefited from DC’s government ties—foreign dignitaries would gift U.S. presidents with various animals from their native countries, which would then be sent to the zoo; and animals that had been subject of government/military studies would also be sent to SNZ to retire (see, for example, Ham the Astrochimp). Procuring penguins was also made easier by these ties.  One example was a big reason why the National Zoo were able to exhibit penguins: five U.S. Navy expeditions to Antarctica.

Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s expeditions to Antarctica had previously brought back penguins for other zoos (namely Philadelphia and Chicago), so Director William Mann made a formal request on behalf of the National Zoo beginning in 1939. Malcolm Davis, head keeper in the bird house, accompanied Byrd on the expeditions.

After the first expedition, Davis returned to DC with one emperor penguin and 13 Adélie penguins. The emperor, according to the New York Times, was the first of its penguin species to be brought north of the equator. The 50-pound gorgeous and stately bird (named Dugan) was immediately the talk of the town. Unfortunately, in May 1940, a few months after his arrival, Dugan succumbed to a fungal infection in his throat, which the zoo at the time could not treat.

Dugan-penguin
Photo of Dugan in the New York Times, March 6, 1940.

The next year, in May 1941, the second Antarctic expedition brought back 3 emperor and 4 gentoo penguins. Director Mann declared that the National Zoo now had “the best penguin collection.”

One has to but to walk through the 176 acres of natural parkland set aside for the Zoo and see the animals to understand why Washingtonians consider the hatching of penguin eggs of more interest than a clash on Capitol Hill…. A free show presents the world’s most remarkable birdhouse in any zoo….

—Washington Post, December 28, 1941

Little did they realize that seven months later the country would be at war, during which time very few animal collecting trips occurred. The Smithsonian Annual Reports for the years 1944–46 list 3 emperor, 4 jackass, 2 Humboldt penguins in the collection, so clearly there was a bit of fluctuation in the bird house in the 1940s. (And I’m not sure what happened to the 13 Adélie penguins from the Byrd expedition.)

In 1947, the third Byrd expedition (Operation Windmill) brought four different species of penguins to the National Zoo: emperor, macaroni, Adélie, and rockhoppers. (The New York Times reported that a total of 57 penguins were sent to New York as part of the expedition.) In the Washington Post, Mann touted the collection of six different species, which were the most popular exhibit at the zoo and the “finest penguin collection in the U.S.” He enthusiastically pointed out that between 30,000 and 60,000 people visit the zoo on weekends, and many of them head straight to the bird house.

Expedition Member with Penguin in Antarctica
An Operation Windmill expedition member standing near a penguin in Antarctica. Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives
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Penguins at the National Zoo, 1941. Photo from the 1941 Smithsonian Annual Report.

Some of the penguins from Operation Windmill almost didn’t make it to the zoo. On April 14, 1947, eight of the birds decided to do some sightseeing when their crate broke open while being lowered from the ship. They jumped into the Anacostia River, rolling around on their backs and enjoying their freedom. Zoo officials feared that the dangerous levels of water pollution would kill them. Harbor police were able to capture five of them within a few hours. One was found four days later twenty miles away in Maryland. The other two were presumably never found.

The zoo again topped 3 million visitors the next year (and the few years that followed), and once again more penguins arrived: 4 king, 8 emperor, and 4 Adélie collected by another Antarctic expedition. A Washington Post article mentioned that the emperor penguins replaced the dozen from the previous expedition—all of which had died of respiratory disease. The National Zoo was still the only zoo to house emperors in their collection. The jackass and Humboldt penguins seemed to thrive the best in DC.

The zoo wasn’t having any luck with penguin births, either. One Humboldt chick hatched in 1948, but it lived only a few days. Director Mann believed that the DC climate made it impossible to them to survive.

At this point, all of the emperor penguins collected by the Antarctic expeditions had died. A fourth expedition brought back seven of these penguins (along with 4 Adélie) in March 1955 to give it another try. (King and Humboldt penguins also arrived that year from other sources, and a few other emperors went to the Bronx Zoo to be displayed in their new state-of-the-art penguin house.) The zoo worked hard to prevent the respiratory disease that was killing the birds—improved cleaning methods and better air filtration, lowered temperature and humidity levels. Still, the birds struggled to thrive. According to the 1955 Annual Report, researchers at the National Institute of Health had isolated the organism and were working to find a chemical or bacterial agent that would eradicate it.

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From the New York Times, March 17, 1955.

By early July, all of the emperor penguins had died, all from aspergillosis, and only one of the Adélie was still living. Now the Bronx Zoo was the only zoo in the country to exhibit the large emperors, and zoos in Tokyo and Switzerland were the only other places in the world to house them. Mann lamented, “We had the best doctors we could get. We tried to filter the air—we tried everything.” He noted that the two in the Bronx were thriving—one had even laid an egg—so it was a true mystery as to why those in DC did not live. A Washington Post reporter pleaded with the zoo to end the quest for emperor penguins after another expedition was requested by head keeper Davis. However, the plea was ignored, and three more emperors were brought to the bird house. All died within five days from the same fungal disease. According to the 1956 Annual Report, the birds were treated with two medications via a nebulizer, but the pathology report suggested that had the treatment been started earlier it would have been effective. The 1957 Annual Report also detailed a research effort to study the fungal infection by a biologist (Dr. William Sladen) at Johns Hopkins University and scientist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Research Laboratory in Patuxent, Maryland. New treatments were being developed, and much more had been learned about the disease, but a cure still had not been developed.

(Side note: To this day, SeaWorld San Diego has been the only North American institution to house a successful captive emperor penguin colony. Since 1980, more than twenty emperor penguins have been hatched and raised there.)

In 1958 the research efforts intensified, as the zoo acquired 12 Adélie penguins by way of the U.S. Navy’s Operation Deep Freeze for the primary purpose of studying the disease. The birds arrived in February, and by the end of June, four were living. A new antifungal drug, called a “miracle drug” by the Baltimore Sun, had been administered for the first time that year, “with some degree of success,” according to the Annual Report (174).

The 1960s seemed to welcome a turning point for penguins in captivity. Researchers were finally starting to understand and better treat the dreaded aspergillosis. Zoos were collaborating on care and treatment of their penguin collections (see Davis 1967). Exhibit spaces and hygiene practices were improving. In 1961, the Baltimore Zoo acquired 10 Humboldt penguins—after attempting to house penguins a few times in the 1950s. Their proximity to Dr. Sladen at Johns Hopkins undoubtedly gave them confidence to manage a successful penguin colony. On the emperor penguin front, the Aalborg Zoo in Denmark received more than ten emperor penguins in 1963, one of which lived until 1983. (However, they did not have a chick that hatched and survived more than a few days.)

At the National Zoo, the 1960s seemed to mark the end of the penguin collection. Head keeper Malcolm Davis retired in July 1960, and in December 1962 the remaining five penguins in the collection were sent to Saint Louis Zoo while the bird house underwent major renovations.

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From the Washington Post, December 7, 1962.

The renovations took several years to complete. Finally, in March 1966, the beginning of construction on the new multi-climate building was announced. (We can only speculate that construction was delayed due to budget constraints.) The sole indication that the building was complete the next year is a photo of penguins enjoying their new digs, courtesy of the Washington Post. The 1968 Annual Report mentioned the purchase of macaroni penguins, which arrived in May 1968.

That is where the story mysteriously ends. After 1968, the local newspapers and Smithsonian annual reports do not mention any presence of penguins at the National Zoo. I can only speculate that without a penguin expert on staff, the zoo decided to focus their efforts on other species and sent any remaining penguins to the Baltimore Zoo. An article from July 1987 indicated that then-director Michael Robinson had a vision to introduce penguins by the year 2000, but that obviously never became a reality.

Although it’s unfortunate that the National Zoo does not feature penguins, one only has to travel up to Baltimore to enjoy the largest African penguin colony in the country. In fact, over 1,000 chicks have hatched there. The impressive exhibit is well worth the trip, and I highly recommend purchasing a penguin encounter for the rare opportunity to interact with (and pet!) their ambassador penguins.

UPDATE (9/3/2019): According to a few sources close to the zoo on social media, a bout of avian malaria is what ended the penguin program at the National Zoo. I was able to verify that there was indeed an outbreak among SNZ’s macaroni penguins in 1969 (“Blood parasites of penguins: a critical review”).

Sources

“Valuable Penguin Killed in Fight with Zoo Mates.” Washington Post, July 27, 1926: 2.

Mann, William M. Wild Animals In and Out of the Zoo. Volume 6 of the Smithsonian Scientific Series. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1930.

Smithsonian Institution. Annual Reports, 1933–1968.

“Former Galapagos Island Citizens Find Home in Zoo.” Washington Post, April 29, 1933: 20.

“D.C. Zoo Hopes for Epochal Blessed Event As Penguins ‘Sit’ on First Egg Ever Laid Here.” Washington Post, February 5, 1938: X1.

“Mollie and Moe’s Expected Event Stirs Zoo Interest.” Washington Post, February 9, 1938: X15.

“Three’s a Crowd for Latest Nesters.” Washington Post, February 11, 1938: X1.

“Two More Penguins ‘Sitting’ at Zoo, but They Have No Egg.” Washington Post, February 11, 1938: 10.

Gross, Gerald G. “Baby Is Born to Mrs. (and Mr.) Penguin: Pushing Crowd at Cage Watches Epochal Zoo Event.” Washington Post, March 13, 1938: M1.

“Molly and Moe Penguin Hold Zoo ‘At Home’: ‘I Told You So,’ Godfather Davis Grins as 21,000 Visit Malcolm.” Washington Post, March 14, 1938: X17.

“Oooooh, Look—It’s the New Baby Penguin!” Washington Post, March 14, 1938: X10.

“Minnie Is Born, 2 Days Early, Into Zoo’s Most Famous Family.” Washington Post, March 16, 1938: X1.

“Minnie (or Was It Malky?) Penguin Departs This Life.” Washington Post, March 23, 1938: X1.

“Mollie and Moe Hopeful Again.” Washington Post, May 3, 1938: X16, X17.

“Zoo Has Penguin Egg Blast.” Washington Post, June 8, 1938: X4.

“Savants Prove No Winchells as Molly Lays 5th Egg.” Washington Post, October 24, 1938: X1.

“Zoo Wonders if Mollie Is Hatching Eggs or Bombs: Mollie and Moe Set On 2 Eggs, Undaunted By Rivals’ Explosion.” Washington Post, June 3, 1939: 1.

“Penguinville Sad As Mollie and Moe Fail to Hatch Egg.” Washington Post, June 27, 1939: 1.

“Little Minnie Penguin, Zoo Hopes Minnie Is Correct, Makes Debut at Age of 24 Days.” Washington Post, July 13, 1939: 3.

“Zoo’s Penguins Mourn for Baby.” Washington Post, July 28, 1939: 7.

“Mollie the Penguin Dies at Zoo After 3 Chicks Fail to Live: Mother’s Persistence Ends With Failure to Rear Her Offspring.” Washington Post, August 16, 1939: 1.

“Mollie Just Wasted Away With Grief, Museum Reports.” Washington Post, August 18, 1939: 15.

“Zoo Wants Byrd to Bring Moe a New Mollie to Love.” Washington Post, August 29, 1939: 15.

“Stampede to Get 20 Penguins Delays Byrd in Expedition.” Washington Post, November 7, 1939: 3.

“This Penguin’s No Gentleman; He (She) Lays Eggs in Public.” Washington Post, December 17, 1939: 3.

“Emperor Dugan, Tossed to Zoo’s Jackass Kin, Has a Peck of Fun.” Washington Post, March 6, 1940: 17.

“Rare Penguin Here from Antarctica: Emperor Bird Was Housed in Refrigerator on Ship on Long Voyage.” New York Times, March 6, 1940: 25.

“Dugan Is Dead; Long Live Our Emperor Penguin!” Washington Post, May 26, 1940: 14.

“Now in Zoo’s Who …” Washington Post, May 7, 1941: 14.

“Radiophoto News for the Zoo.” Washington Post, February 16, 1947: M2.

“57 Penguins En Route Here from Antarctic.” New York Times, March 7, 1947: 9.

“Penguins Seek Freedom In Potomac Plunge.” New York Times, April 15, 1947: 3.

Yarbrough, Charles J. “Five Give Selves Up But Others May Be Antarctica-Bound.” Washington Post, April 15, 1947: 1.

Yarbrough, Charles J. “Three Fugitive Byrd Penguins Still Missing.” Washington Post, April 16, 1947: 1.

Montanari, V. R. “Missing Penguin ‘Hitches’ Ride to Zoo—Four Days Late.” Washington Post, April 19, 1947: 1.

“Zoo in District’s ‘Back Yard’ and Its Dr. Mann Are Popular.” Washington Post, June 6, 1947: B2.

“Zoo’s Emperor Penguin Dies, Grieving for Late Sweetheart.” Washington Post, August 4, 1947: 1.

Montanari, V. R. “50-Year Appeal for Gifts Still Builds Up Capital’s Zoo.” Washington Post, February 8, 1948: M16.

“Zoo Is Awaiting Arrival of Eight Emperor Penguins.” Washington Post, March 23, 1948: B1.

“Zoo Gets 12 New Penguins.” Washington Post, March 29, 1948: 10.

“Penguin Lives 2 Days.” Washington Post, 08 June 8, 1948: B2.

Gabbett, Harry. “10 Put-Out Penguins Put Up at D.C. Zoo.” Washington Post, August 7, 1954: 1, 6.

“Atka Takes 6 Emperor Penguins on New-Found Antarctic Coast.” New York Times, February 17, 1955: 1.

“Atka’s Penguins Resist Feeding.” New York Times, February 20, 1955: 19.

“Penguins Captured in Antarctic Endangered by Delay En Route to U.S.” New York Times, March 10, 1955: 1.

“Penguins Healthy for Air Trip to U.S.” New York Times, March 12, 1955: 35.

“Penguins ‘Given’ to Zoo.” New York Times, March 16, 1955: 19.

“Captive Penguins Attract Crowds.” New York Times, March 24, 1955: 33.

“Last of Emperor Penguins Dead.” Washington Post, July 9, 1955: 19.

“Hopkins Loans Zoo Expert to Help Save Sick Penguins.” The (Baltimore) Sun, January 13, 1958: 11.

Maulsby, David L. “Penguins from Galapagos Strut into New Zoo Home.” The (Baltimore) Sun, April 26, 1961: 46.

Davis, D. G. “Keeping Penguins in Captivity: The Penguin Paradox.” International Zoo Yearbook, 7 (1967): 3-11. 10.1111/j.1748-1090.1967.tb00290.x

Aldrich, Amy. “Zoo Doings: An Outsiders View of What Insiders Do.” Washington Post, July 31, 1987: W48.

Aspergillosis. American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Infectious Disease Committee Manual 2013. https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.aazv.org/resource/resmgr/IDM/IDM_Aspergillosis_2013.pdf