Zookeeper John Pickering first laid eyes on Rosie the Humboldt Penguin when he picked her up from Birdworld in Surrey to bring her to Sewerby Hall and Gardens near Bridlington.
Rosie was just three months old and he was 28. Celebrating her 32nd birthday today (Wednesday April 20), she is believed to be the oldest Humboldt penguin in the world, while John recently celebrated his 60th birthday.
She now has arthritis and walks slower on land, but the pain relief – given in a sprat – is helping.
That’s one of the reasons for its incredible longevity – along with being hand-fed and not having to run the gauntlet of predators like leopard seals.
John said: “We believe she is the oldest Humboldt penguin in the world, but we cannot say for sure. We have a quarterly vet visit and are still discussing the quality of her life.
“We wouldn’t want her to suffer too much.
“She still has a really good appetite and she’s still really good in the pool. She doesn’t do much except at mealtimes.”
When John approaches Rosie in his enclosure, she does not move from her comfortable prone position by the pool, unlike his first grandson Pickle, who was hand-raised by John and never not yet a year.
Clearly deeply attached, she follows him around like a shadow and squirms with excitement when he’s near.
Pickle is the third hand-bred chick by John, who unexpectedly became an “older relative” after an 18-year gap.
John, who grew up on the outskirts of Bridlington, has loved wildlife since childhood and wanted to be a conservationist.
His uncle Jim had donkeys on the beach and used to do donkey derbies in the 1970s. He got his first job at Sewerby Hall when he was 17.
Generally, zoo staff try to avoid raising chicks by hand, but the egg containing Pickle was abandoned by her father, who normally takes turns caring for her.
John said: “We were all ready to throw the egg away after 41 days but he tweeted he was starting to glitch (break out of the shell) so I put him back in the incubator and brought him back to the House.
“She follows me everywhere but she has to learn to be a penguin now.
“She’s the one I’m closest to. I never thought I’d do it again and I had to get all my notes out – it was hard work.”
Raising him meant four feedings a day, the last at midnight, and that could take an hour, while feeding his fish mixed with water, he says, was “awful” for a vegan, and even more unpleasant when they sneeze while eating.
Still in his soft gray and white juvenile plumage, Pickle is surprisingly warm and soft to the touch, due to the fat penguins carry, to cope with the cold Humboldt water current in which they swim.
Humboldt penguins – which only nest in parts of Chile and Peru – have been hit hard by human encroachment, overfishing of their staple foods, anchovies and squid, and warmer-than-usual ocean temperatures El Nino, making it harder for them to find food.
The once-abundant species is now labeled ‘vulnerable to extinction’ in part because the guano they tunnel into to make their burrows is dug up and exported to countries like the UK for fertiliser.
Full details of all opening times, prices, annual passes, the Clock Tower Café and all facilities can be found at www.sewerbyhall.co.uk