It’s been a rough few years for Spud the penguin.
In 2018, he was living what we can only assume is the penguin equivalent of the American Dream – happily paired with Flower, raising two chicks and enjoying access to a ready supply of sprats from his keepers at Living Coasts zoo in Torquay.
Alas, the relationship was not to last, and Spud was ditched in favour of Solly. Then Covid hit and he – along with all the animals at Living Coasts – found themselves homeless last summer.
“It was really sad to see Living Coasts close,” says senior curator Clare Rugg. “But for business and financial reasons it was the only option that we had.
“We had a really unique collection of animals and we also had a really unique location. It was a beautiful place to visit.”
And so began the mammoth task of relocating a zoo full of creatures in the middle of a global pandemic.
To make matters worse, their new homes are spread across Europe. The female seals went to a zoo in the Netherlands and various birds went to Valencia and Copenhagen.
“With the pandemic, a lot of preparation has to go into it,” said senior keeper Jason Keller. “It has to be quick and efficient but also make sure it’s all good – testing the animals, health-checking, transporting and loading and making sure they get there safely.”
Specialist transport companies were tasked with moving the animals, and the penguins were allowed one last swim at Living Coasts so they were damp and cool for their journey.
“They’re either put in wooden boxes that are specially made for them or, if they’re the right size, we use the pet carriers like people use for their cats and dogs,” says Rugg.
“The zoos both nationally and across Europe have been tremendously helpful in enabling us to do this work – it’s been a big team effort all round, really.”
Fortunately for us Brits, we didn’t lose ready access to all the animals that called Living Coasts home. For one thing, we’ve still got a waddle of Macaroni penguins (yes, that’s what a group of penguins is called).
Macaroni penguins are the punk-rockers of the penguin world – loud, boisterous and with a double mohican to boot. OK, most penguins are loud and boisterous, but the hairstyle is undeniable.
Three years ago, Living Coasts had so many penguins that the single animals were moved to another zoo and it became an exclusive couples resort.
They’re mischievous little things and unpaired males can disturb the loved-up peace of nesting birds, steal their nesting material and sometimes even push out other males and take their place (which is what happened to Spud).
Twelve of Living Coasts’ Macaronis were moved to a new home at Folly Farm in Pembrokeshire, Wales, at the end of last year – where they joined the zoo’s four male macaroni penguins and 19 Humboldt penguins.
Macaroni penguins are classed as a vulnerable species and Folly Farm is now the only place in the UK where they can be found.
“We feel so lucky,” Folly Farm keeper Caroline Davies told HuffPost UK. “It took something awful to happen to Living Coasts, but we’re so honoured and privileged to have them here with us.”
Keeper Catrin Thomas added: “They’ve settled in wonderfully. You couldn’t ask for better.
“When we put them in, the four boys that we had had a hell of a welcome, greeted them and there were beaks going everywhere, squawking at each other, flapping their flippers. It was really lovely, like a Disney moment.
“They’re in pairs and they’re so good together, really happy couples with their own nests, and they sit together and preen one another. We’re hoping to get some eggs soon so if we get some chicks that will be really exciting.”
Macintosh and Flash
Since speaking to HuffPost UK earlier this month, Folly Farm has announced the exciting news that they have welcomed their first Macaroni egg since the new arrivals entered the zoo.
The soon-to-be parents are Mac and Flash who are “inseparable, spend their day building their nest or lying in the nest with each other”.
This is Yoyo, a “very mischievous and inquisitive” fellow paired up with “sassy” Wanda.
Andre and Millie
Andre “the giant” originally came from Canada and is a grand 22 years old.
Two of the four remaining male penguins, Tony and Vinny, are now a couple – though sadly we couldn't get a picture of them.
Gay couples are common in the penguin world, the most famous perhaps being Roy and Silo, who successfully incubated another pair’s egg, hatching a baby called Tango – a delightful tale that was transformed into a children's book called "And Tango Makes Three".
As for Spud? Alas, he remains single, which is perhaps the reason Catrin and Caroline describe him as “the grumpy old man with a short fuse” (he’s 28).
“You try and feed him and he just snaps at you and walks around with a hunchback, the world on his shoulders,” said Catrin.