Santa Barbara Zoo’s shoe-wearing penguin dies
After a decade of living with a special shoe on his right foot, the Santa Barbara Zoo’s Humbolt penguin Lucky died Wednesday, humanely euthanized after a long battle with a degenerative foot condition.
The decision to end his life was one arrived at after long, hard consideration, according to Rachel Ritchason, the zoo’s director of collections and Lucky’s keeper when he was hatched at the zoo 10 years ago.
Lucky suffered from an infection at the end of a limb that was amputated in 2018 due to a deteriorating ankle joint, and the zoo’s staff chose to euthanize the bird after treatments like regrowing fresh skin around the infected area failed to ameliorate his condition.
Though it was difficult to bid him farewell, Ms. Ritchason told the News-Press that the Santa Barbara Zoo aims to give its animals the most pain-free lives they can possibly live. Thus, relieving Lucky of the pain he was feeling was the best possible decision.
“There’s a certain amount of peace that comes with that decision, knowing that it was the right time for him,” Ms. Ritchason said.
Hatched at the Santa Barbara Zoo in 2010, Lucky was born with a limp due to abnormalities in his foot bones that prevented him from walking on the flat of his foot. Around the time he was eight weeks old and should have been walking properly, his deformed foot became more apparent to the zoo’s animal care staff, and they started looking for solutions that would enable the penguin to live a normal life. Besides his abnormal foot, Lucky was completely healthy so euthanizing him as an infant due to his deformity was absolutely out of the question.
“When you look at an animal and see it’s just this one thing, it’s hard to consider something like euthanasia at that early stage,” Ms. Ritchason said.
As the zoo searched for a way to help Lucky’s defective foot, it ultimately found a partner that could help in local adventure footwear company Teva. As Ms. Ritchason recalled, Teva had worked on a special shoe designed to help an elephant walk, and the zoo reached out to the company inquiring if it could do the same for a penguin. A video that Ms. Ritchason had taken of Lucky on a flip phone was sent to Teva, and the company responded the very next day eager to assist.
After taking molds of Lucky’s feet, Teva built Lucky a prototype shoe, currently on display at the Santa Barbara Zoo. Once the shoe was on the penguin’s foot he began walking faster than he had ever been able to before. From then on, Lucky’s life wasn’t all that different from any of his fellow penguins.
“He lived as normally as any of the other penguins did, he just did so while wearing the shoe,” Ms. Ritchason said.
Having spent much time around Lucky as his keeper, Ms. Ritchason had a great deal of exposure to his personality, which she described as “calm,” “comfortable with the staff and the keepers,” and “strong and spunky.” He could also exhibit the territorial tenacity that penguins need to have if they are going to defend a nest with their mate. As he was able to do that, Lucky sired a chick with his mate Nica in 2017.
Looking back on Lucky’s life, Ms. Ritchason is impressed with how so many people came together to help “one tiny penguin” live normally and “thrive with no limitations.” As for Lucky himself, his former keeper sees him as an embodiment of the idea that one can live a full life no matter what difficulties he or she is saddled with. Because he lived with a unique condition, Ms. Ritchason believes he connected with zoo visitors in a special way, reminding them that there’s no problem with being different.
“Lucky connected with people in a really unique way, as an ambassador for being a little bit different,” she said. “I think that’s a really powerful lesson,