The Oregon Zoo gave a bitter farewell over the weekend to Mochica, the elderly statesman of the Humboldt penguin colony and a prominent ambassador of seabirds for more than three decades. At 31, he was one of the oldest and most beloved penguins on the planet.
Mochica was the oldest male of its kind in any North American zoo or aquarium, possibly worldwide, said Travis Koons, who oversees the zoo bird populations. His extraordinary longevity says a lot about his desire for life and the quality of care he received over the years.
Mochica was created on July 6, 1990, at the Oregon Zoo and grew by hand, a standard practice at the time. But Mo, as he was briefly known, grew up differently from other birds. More than any penguin in the large Humboldt Zoo colony, he enjoyed spending time with humans, often choosing protected areas over the company of other birds at the Penguinarium.
It was very common to go into the kitchen area and find Mo helping with food preparation or just hanging out with the care staff there, Koons said.
Mo was just as fond of visitors to the penguin area, who would meet him on the backstage tour. Eventually, Koons said, he became the zoo’s biggest ambassador, personally welcoming thousands if not tens of thousands of visitors and helping raise awareness of a declining species. It was a role he seemed to enjoy. As one former goalkeeper said, Mochica rarely met an arm he did not like to give to the groom.
Wild Humboldt penguins rarely live over 20 years, and Mochica, who turned 31 in July, had slowed down for several years. Over the past two years, animal care staff had closely monitored and treated a range of age-related diseases.
He had a mature cataract in one eye, aging fog in the other, bilateral arthritis in his hips, Koons said. He was just a very old bird. It was hard for him to see, and sometimes hard for him to walk.
Koons praised the efforts of the care staff, who did everything they could to alleviate the anxiety of the elderly penguins by introducing a daily dose of meloxicam into his morning with consistent seafood and scheduling regular laser therapy sessions with specialists from Kenton Animal Hospital. Eventually, however, Mos conditions worsened and on Saturday the veterinary and care staff made the difficult decision to euthanize him humanely.
It’s an incredibly sad day for his care team and for all those who spent time with this amazing bird, Koons said. We have all had occasions in our lives when animals have left an indelible mark on our hearts. Mochica has done this for thousands of people. He inspired generations.
Koons hopes the Mochica’s heritage will be an ongoing conservation, especially for the Humboldts, who are among the most endangered penguin species with an estimated population of just 12,000 breeding pairs.
Humboldt penguins live in a region that is heavily affected by human activity, he said. They need healthy ocean habitats to thrive, and we can help make a difference even in simple ways like downloading the Seafood Watch app and choosing sustainable seafood.
Born on the South American coast in Peru and Chile, Humboldt penguins are classified as unprotected by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. They are threatened by overfishing of their prey species, entanglement in fishing nets and cessation of breeding due to the commercial removal of guano deposits where birds lay their eggs.
The Oregon Zoo has supported the Peruvian-based conservative organization ACOREMA that works to protect the Humboldt penguin. ACOREMA monitors penguin mortality and works closely with San Andrs fishermen to streamline the practice of hunting penguins for food. The group also trains volunteer rangers, reaching 3,000 students, teachers and Pisco area residents per year to raise awareness of penguin conservation.
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