Avian malaria takes toll on zoo penguins

Avian malaria takes toll on zoo penguins »Play Video
SEATTLE -- A penguin problem as popped up at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo.

Two of them have died over the past few weeks while several others are sick, and it appears a type of malaria is to blame.

Ever since the new exhibit at the zoo opened in May with 20 Humboldt penguins, it's been a hit. The little animals that stand about a foot and a half tall love to entertain, and families who pass by can't get enough.

"They just move a lot, so they have a lot of action," said Courtney Shamek of Bonney Lake. "A lot of the other exhibits, the animals are kinda stationary. Here, they like to move. It's more exciting."

But two penguins have died this month -- the latest death just a few days ago by a suspected case of avian malaria, which might have also contributed to the first penguin's death.

"We're all pretty emotionally drained, including our vet staff and our penguin keepers in particular," said animal curator Mark Myers. "(It's) an amazing amount of time to monitor each bird in the colony."

Zoo officials say the penguins are very susceptible to diseases or viruses that are spread by mosquitoes, such as avian malaria or the West Nile Virus. Three other animals are currently showing the tell-tale signs of the disease.

So now, there are 18 penguins here at the zoo. Fifteen remain on exhibit, but the other three are being treated behind the scenes -- and the prognosis is good. Five of the older penguins still in the exhibit are undergoing drug treatment as a precaution.

They're under close observation, along with getting anti-malarial medication, after showing symptoms of loss of appetite and being lethargic about a week ago.

"They are still subject to natural occurrences and diseases that all the other animals are," said Penny Miller of Redmond.

Zoo workers are now trying to pinpoint where the malaria came from, which can be tricky since mosquitoes can breed in a teaspoon of standing water.

The zoo says the avian malaria is not a risk to people.