Forget Happy Feet, the penguins in Scarborough Sea Life Sanctuary are so depressed they have to be given anti-depression medication. The Humboldt penguin is a native of South America, having originated from Chile and Peru. They live on the North Yorkshire coast known for wet and windy extremes. The penguins have gotten a severe case of SAD (Seasonal Afflictive Disorder). The keepers have had to add pills to their diet to stave off the side effects of their growing distress. The sociable creatures have become irritable and unfriendly with each other, stopped laying eggs and lost their appetites.
Penguins are known to be extremely sensitive. They can commit suicide in the wild by abandoning the colony and going off alone where they then starve to death. In captivity, they are deprived of this option and have to endure the collective misery.
The curator at the sanctuary first noticed that they had become subdued, but as weeks turned into months she had to take action to curtail the spreading depression. Lyndsey Crawford thinks that the deluge of rain this winter has created conditions the penguins just cannot tolerate. As a breed, they were acclimatized to extremes of weather, but not to this ongoing onslaught of wet and cold. The strength and ferocity of the high winds is another factor they intensely dislike.
It’s a sad day indeed when even the penguins need Prozac, but these rainy days and (lack of) sun days are really getting them down. The British weather can be hard to tolerate even at the best of times, but this winter has been appalling even by the usual horrible conditions in the British Isles. It is thought that the lack of sunlight is the main factor affecting the Humboldts’ ability to cope. Seeing them this desperately unhappy meant there was no choice but to put them on antidepressants.
The “uppers” are apparently doing the trick in putting a little happiness back into the penguins’ feet, but what they really need, according to the keepers, is some successive days of sunshine. They are “praying for the weather to change,” along with everyone else in the country. Unfortunately, for the penguins and the rest of the population, the Met Office forecasts are for more fierce Atlantic gales.
There is a well-loved brand of chocolate biscuit in the UK called a Penguin. The tag line for the brand is “P-p-pick up a Penguin;” now it is the penguins who need the picking up. Lyndsey Crawford saw a similar response in her charges when a trespasser broke into their enclosure three years ago and frightened them. They are highly susceptible to any change in their routine. They became unhappy after the incident and took several weeks before they would lay eggs again. Stress and anxiety quickly lowers their natural defense mechanisms. This makes them prone to getting really sick.
The medicine being prescribed to the poorly penguins is called Sporanax and it is administered by being pushed into the gills of the fish they are fed. The Humboldts are named for a German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, who did not discover them as such, he first mapped the cold current they swim in. They can also be known as Peruvian or Patranca penguins.
In Yorkshire, they are a long way from home and so unhappy that they need to be on antidepressants.
By Kate Henderson