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Penguins in Captivity: Keeping them happy

Southern Rockhopper Penguin

Penguins in Captivity: Keeping them happy

By Sian Liversage

It seems that no matter what age you are, whether a child or an adult, one of the most popular and interesting animals to see when visiting a zoo or an animal attraction are the penguins. People have certainly anthropomorphised this species because of the way they look and behave; a good example of this is how they are often compared to a small human wearing a tuxedo. Their waddling gait, clumsy nature and charismatic personalities make them an ideal species to have in captivity, simply to bring the people in. But should they be kept in captivity in the first place?

There is definitely a balance to keeping penguins happy and healthy in captivity

We can’t hide the fact that there are some negative sides to life while living in the care of humans, especially if animals are mistreated or not appropriately housed. Penguins are no different when it comes to struggling in a captive situation.

In one facility, staff had to administer medication to their Humboldt penguins after they showed signs of stress attributed to the difference in local weather that was very different to their natural climate.

Stress can lower a penguin’s immune system, which could cause them to be more vulnerable to diseases, especially if they are kept in poor conditions. Enclosures that are small, with small pools, means that penguins cannot display their natural behaviours, which in turn will increase their stress levels. Another facility nearly ten years ago had several Humboldt Penguins die of infections from unknown causes. This could have been attributed to stress from living conditions or lack of staff knowledge, or any other number of reasons.

Despite the best intentions of an animal keeper, things don’t always go smoothly. For that reason, we promote AZA accreditation in the U.S. and BIAZA membership in the U.K. for facilities that meet strict guidelines for animal management and care. The standards held by facilities with this oversight will ensure the best care is given to all of their animals. 

Animal care and management goes beyond best practices, however. The penguins need to be kept engaged and in an environment that promotes enrichment.

Zoo enclosures have advanced dramatically in keep penguins happy and healthy

Zoo enclosure designs have come a long way since the bare concrete space that animals used to live in, now providing an engaging, healthy sanctuary for penguins. Zoos and aquariums also play a key role towards conserving endangered species too, of which there are a large proportion of penguins under this category. Likewise, many zoos and aquariums aim to promote conservation work, educate the general public, and support wildlife projects. All of these categories merge to create a standard of welfare, which means that penguins which are kept in captivity are given the utmost care. These standards are in place to allow the animals to develop in a healthy environment as similar to their natural habitat as possible.

New enclosure designs promote more natural behaviours in penguins

The Detroit Zoo recognised that their penguins needed something more in their enclosure, so they replaced a 6-foot deep pool with a 25-foot deep pool. The penguins ended up spending extra time in the water than previously, showing the zookeepers that this new change enhanced their lives that much more. The penguins spoke and their keepers listened.

Flagship species, like penguins, will draw crowds in, helping to raise their profile. This will in turn fund conservation efforts to help protect the species in the wild. So, keeping them in an enclosure that promotes their natural behaviour is vital not only for giving them a stress-free life, but also for educating the general public on their behaviours and the conservation work that is ongoing throughout the world.

Humboldt Penguin stands on the edge of its pool. Photo found at: https://www.penguins-world.com/penguins-in-captivity/

No matter what evidence is put forward though, animals in captivity whether it be focusing on penguins or not, will continue to be a controversial issue that is widely discussed. From the evidence shown in this blog, it seems that as long as penguins can behave naturally, they are able to live a long happy life in a human made environment without predators. The efforts that zoos and parks will go to nowadays to keeping their animals stress free is astounding, and I think it’s safe to say that people have learned from the past and will continue to learn the needs of their animals for the future. 

Pro/con, zoos are helping penguins feel like they are more in their natural habitats while in captivity, but they will always feel do better when free. Please help us continue to provide you this type of information by donating to Penguins International.

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DW Made for Minds. 2017. Should penguins be an animal attraction? Webpage: https://www.dw.com/en/should-penguins-be-an-animal-attraction/a-38557239

Penguins World. 2017. Penguins in Captivity. Webpage: https://www.penguins-world.com/penguins-in-captivity/

In defence of zoos: how captivity helps conservation. 2016. Webpage: http://theconversation.com/in-defence-of-zoos-how-captivity-helps-conservation-56719

Enrichment for Captive Penguins: Can it be successful?

Humboldt Penguin

Enrichment for Penguins: Is it needed, can it be successful?

by Georgia Podmore

One of an animal keeper’s main tasks during their day is to design and offer enrichment for a variety of species. In my work place we have tried simple enrichment with the Humboldt Penguins, but they all seemed nervous of the objects. So, it has now become normal for enrichment to be overlooked at the facility, as the penguins do not use it anyway. This is not affecting the penguins lives however, as there are no signs of stress in the colony. Rickey Kinley, a Senior Aviculture Keeper at Cincinnati Zoo, also has problems with the penguins not being interested in “playing” with enrichment devices (Yin and Kinley, 2015).

Hunting for fish is a penguin’s enrichment in the natural environment

Focusing on why enrichment may be needed would mean looking at the Humboldt Penguin’s natural behaviours out in the wild. The biggest form of enrichment for a wild penguin would be hunting for fish. This cannot be easily replicated in a captive environment as live fish are not fed to penguins. A lot of zoos also feed penguins by hand to make sure that individuals are getting enough to eat (Ings, Waran and Young, 1997). It can be a difficult task to ensure top physical health for penguins if food is then being put in enrichment, as certain penguins may not be interested and therefore lose condition.

Wild penguins normally spend most of their time swimming in the ocean, but Cincinnati Zoo stated that their penguins spend most of their day on land. The different types of enrichment below look at how these may affect penguin activity and behaviour and hopefully will lead to further development of penguin enrichment ideas.

zookeeper feeding captive penguins
Photo by Georgia Podmore

What types of enrichment work for penguins in captivity?

Physical Habitat

The enclosure for penguins should guarantee that is has the correct space for the number of penguins, alongside ensuring that it has land and water within it. When looking at enclosure design, keepers need to be thinking about utilising space for enrichment. This may include having areas that the fish can be hidden for the penguins. For most captive penguins their enclosures will meet the requirements set by governing bodies. This ensures that the penguins have a positive environment. A great idea used at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo incorporates floating platforms in the middle of the water as this encourages the penguins to be more active around the enclosure. 

Enclosure design is very important for captive penguins


Penguins are extremely social animals, so it is important that they are housed in social groups to ensure that they are stimulated. Most collections holding penguins will generally always have a small group but something that may also develop social enrichment are mixed species exhibits. These exhibits consist of having animals that would naturally encounter each other in the wild, which then creates enrichment through species interaction. There is not a lot of examples of this being done with penguins, however it may be something that could be researched further to look at whether it may benefit activity. Mirrors are often used as social enrichment for horses that are stabled alone and have been proven to reduce stress. Mirrors could be added under the surface of the water as this may encourage more swimming activity. 


Food based enrichment is the most used method of enrichment and is generally used to prolong feeding times of animals. As previously mentioned most captive penguins will be hand fed to ensure that they are all getting enough fish per day. Cincinnati zoo used hamster balls in the water that had fish inside them, as this would encourage the penguins to spend longer swimming while also enabling them to use their hunting skills. This was not a simple task though as keepers stated that the penguins were initially nervous of the hamster balls, so they had to be slowly trained to positively associate the balls with food (Yin and Kinley, 2015). This took over 15 weeks but shows that if animal keepers take the time to slowly introduce enrichment devices, the penguins will become adapted and start to use enrichment.


Novel objects such as boomer balls and tyres are classed as cognitive enrichment, with the main aim of enhancing the animal’s mental stimulation (Puppe et al., 2007). The hamster balls used by Cincinnati Zoo can be used as an example of cognitive enrichment. As mentioned, penguins can be quite nervous around novel objects so this is something that may need to be slowly introduced. This is also a reason why you may not see many novel objects in a penguin enclosure.


Sensory enrichment can focus on any of the five senses. This is a type of enrichment that can be used successfully for penguins and should be promoted more within the captive environments. RZSS Edinburgh Zoo discussed the success of a bubble machine for their 130 penguins stating that “All three of our penguin species loved playing with the bubbles” (Edinburgh Zoo, 2018)

There is a lack of sources online that discuss penguin enrichment. Although it is obvious that enriching penguins can be difficult, and some may not feel that it is necessary. The bubble machine popularity at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo gives an example of enrichment that is increasing mental stimulation in captive penguins. With further practise and study more enrichment ideas may then also be found, and this will enable captive penguins to thrive (Lindley, 2004). Enrichment should be given to any animal whether it is showing signs of stress or not, as the main aim should always be to keep trying to improve captive animal welfare. Zoos across the world need to be publishing images of their trials with enrichment to communicate and be able to develop enrichment for penguins.

Natural environment vs zoos; a difference and something to try to match. What did you find out in this blog? We love bringing you this type of information, but also can’t do it without your help. Please consider donating to Penguins International so we can continue to keep you informed.

Read more information about penguins in some of other blogs:

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Reference List:

Edinburgh Zoo. (2018). Unbelieva-bubble penguin enrichment at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo | Edinburgh Zoo. [online] Available at: https://www.edinburghzoo.org.uk/news/article/13881/unbelieva-bubble-penguin-enrichment/ [Accessed 27 Aug. 2019].

Ings, R., Waran, N. and Young, R. (1997). Attitude of zoo visitors to the idea of feeding live prey to zoo animals. Zoo Biology, 16(4), pp.343-347.

Lindley, A. (2004). Environmental Enrichment for Captive Animals. The Veterinary Journal, 168(2), p.173.

Puppe, B., Ernst, K., Schön, P. and Manteuffel, G. (2007). Cognitive enrichment affects behavioural reactivity in domestic pigs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 105(1-3), pp.75-86.

Yin, D. and Kinley, R. (2015). Cincinnati Zoo Penguin Training. [online] Available at: https://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/cincinnati-zoo-penguin-training1/ [Accessed 27 Aug. 2019].

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