BOSTON (WHDH) - A 24-year-old African penguin at the New England Aquarium has been given a new lease on life after receiving over two years of specialized care for a foot condition.

Beach Donkey hatched at the Aquarium on April 21, 1998. In the summer of 2020, staff there diagnosed her with pododermatitis, also known as bumblefoot, due to large calluses that developed on her feet. This is a common condition that affects both wild penguins and those in captivity, and can develop due to factors including body weight, activity level, age, environment and genetics. If left untreated, this condition can cause bone infections.

“Chronic pododermatitis can progress to a deeper infection of the underlying soft tissue structures and bone and can also predispose the bird to other health issues,” said Dr. Melissa Joblon, an associate veterinarian at the Aquarium. “Early diagnosis with routine foot checks, followed by intensive treatment, requires extensive collaboration with the veterinary and husbandry teams.”

The Aquarium’s care team sprang into action, developing a multi-pronged approach including “medications, surgical procedures, hands-on-foot treatments, and the use of custom-made footwear,” they said.

To enact this plan, the staff also had to train Beach Donkey to be comfortable with this level of interaction and touch. Eric Fox, the Aquarium’s manager of penguins, said they trained her to be comfortable with handling her feet by taking her on field trips throughout the space as a reward, showing her everything from exhibit halls to staff offices.

“We wanted Beach to continue to come to her feeds on exhibit, so we considered other ways to reward in addition to giving her fish,” said Senior Penguin Trainer Amanda Barr. “She has always been a curious bird and seemed to really like the opportunity to explore the Aquarium, outside of her exhibit space. Of course, our staff also loved when she would make appearances in unexpected places.”

As she grew desensitized to her treatments, including her shoes, she underwent another foot surgery that entailed a bandaging process over several weeks as her feet healed.

“The shoes were initially intended to take the pressure off the bottom of her feet,” Barr said. “It was really reinforcing for her because she got to walk around the aquarium and see different things.”

Barr also said that it took time to get Beach Donkey acclimated to her new kicks, but after the success of her treatment she is now considered healed from bumblefoot and doesn’t need to wear her shoes every day.

At 24, Beach Donkey has far exceeded her life expectancy of 10 to 15 years in the wild, as have most of the penguins at the Aquarium. Many of them may require special attention and medical care including daily eye drops, acupuncture and physical therapy.

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