The New England Aquarium near Boston’s North End is home to more than 20,000 creatures from over 600 species, according to their website. One of their main attractions is their penguin exhibit, and one of those little birds has a touching story that inspired the Boston community and turned the bird into somewhat of a local celebrity.
Enter “Beach Donkey,” the 24-year-old African penguin on a mission. Despite her old age (the average lifespan for penguins is 15-20 years, according to Birds Flight) and a debilitating foot condition, “Beach Donkey” is determined not to let anything slow her down.
New England Aquarium Staff worked with “Beach Donkey” meticulously for the last two years to treat the condition medically known as pododermatitis, or bumblefoot. Today aquarium staff say she is thriving, but two years ago the story was different.
In 2020, she had her bumblefoot diagnosis after staff notified large calluses on her feet. Bumblefoot affects wild penguins and those under human care like “Beach Donkey.” The primary factors that influence whether a penguin will experience bumblefoot are body weight, activity level, age, environment, and genetic predisposition-not too dissimilar from the reason’s behind human calluses.
However, bumblefoot is much more advanced than a basic callus. If the condition is not addressed immediately, it can issue an infection in the bone, which can quickly become life-threatening. Staff developed a treatment plan promptly, but implementing the plan took some time according to Eric Fox, manager of the New England Aquarium penguins. Animals are not accustomed to the level of involvement and training required to execute the treatment, so they reinforced “Beach Donkey” incrementally.
The treatment involved a variety of interventions such as medications and surgery as well as holistic care such as physical therapy and rehabilitation. The New England Aquarium staff working with the penguin stated that “incentives” were key. What does “Beach Donkey” enjoy?
They say that special field trips visiting new wings of the aquarium did the trick. An integral part of her treatment is also her custom footwear. These specially designed shoes enabled her to walk comfortably on hard surfaces. Multiple surgeries, and treatments, and two years later, the resilient African penguin is now free of her bumblefoot.
The team is so glad she made a full recovery and her determination is a pure example of what it means to be “Boston Strong.” You can catch a glimpse of “Beach Donkey” prancing around her observatory at the New England Aquarium, with her custom shoes and a special green and white bracelet on her right wing.
Find the New England Aquarium at 1 Central Wharf, Boston, MA 02110