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The Recovery of the Traumatized Penguins

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. At the Moody Gardens Aquarium in Galveston, Texas, they're taking care of 21 penguins that survived a truck wreck earlier this week. The birds were being brought from the Indianapolis Zoo in a refrigerated truck which overturned in east Texas. One penguin died in the crash. Three more were killed by passing vehicles. Greg Whittaker is coordinating care for the surviving penguins at Moody Gardens.

Mr. GREG WHITTAKER (Animal Husbandry Manager, Moody Gardens Aquarium, Galveston, Texas): They're doing quite well. They're resting comfortably in an off-exhibit holding location. There has been some vocalization between this group, back and forth with a group of 20 other Indianapolis birds that came and joined us about a month and a half ago.

BLOCK: Vocalization?

Mr. WHITTAKER: Yeah, they're talking back and forth to each other. The birds that are on the exhibit normally would squawk and make noise to each other and we've noted that several of the birds in the back are responding to that and actually squawking back.

BLOCK: And physically? What kind of shape are they in?

Mr. WHITTAKER: Physically, the only visible injury that we can see is the wing injury on one of the King Penguins. We had our vet look at it and what we thought was a fracture is actually a dislocation. They're working in conjunction with the Indianapolis Zoo vet and they're going to sort of take a wait and see approach. They've got the animal on antibiotics as well as painkillers and we're just going to work with that in the best interest of the animal.

BLOCK: It's hard to imagine that this truck could have flipped over and that these penguins would come out unscathed. There were no bruises? No bleeding? Nothing?

Mr. WHITTAKER: It's really hard to determine. There were about three birds that did have some minor cuts, but penguins are really built quite tough. They're a fairly stocky bird. Their bones are very solid as compared to most other birds. They've got a fairly thick blubber layer so they came through it quite well.

BLOCK: Any way to tell how traumatized these birds might be?

Mr. WHITTAKER: Time will tell on that one. There were - a couple of the birds that were killed were actually long-term mated pairs with some of the ones that survived. We're hoping that once we get them through their quarantine period and they join the other members of their flock from Indianapolis as well as our 74 birds that are in our exhibit that there is going to be enough social dynamics there that these birds will adjust.

BLOCK: This accident does seem like a very preventable thing and I wonder if it raises questions about the risks that are involved in transporting animals like this?

Mr. WHITTAKER: It is a very risky process. We approach it with a very sort of a solemn planning and we try to cover all the bases whenever we approach something like this. We actually a truck on the road accompanying the Indianapolis truck. We have multiple drivers on the trucks. We don't allow them to get tired when they're on the road. They frequently check on the animals and trade off drivers so that they can avoid preventable risk, as you say.

BLOCK: Mr. Whittaker, what happens with these birds now? What are you going to be looking for?

Mr. WHITTAKER: Well, one of the things that we're looking for is any sort of respiratory issues. Those are a big concern with penguins that can't deal with fungus. And we're treating for that preventatively, but that's one of the things that we'll look for specifically. The other thing that we'll probably do is go back in a week or so and maybe do a complete physical, an exam on all of the birds, any abnormalities that we see in movements or behavior, we'll probably look at ultrasound or radiograph if that's necessary to determine if there were some other injuries that we didn't catch on the initial triage.

BLOCK: Greg Whittaker, thanks for talking with us.

Mr. WHITTAKER: Certainly.

BLOCK: Greg Whittaker is the animal husbandry manager at Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas. The penguins should be going back to the Indianapolis Zoo in April. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.