Peter is an independent international zoo consultant, critic and writer with over 50 years of work within zoos.
Penguins in the Middle East
The Penguin Programme in Ski Dubai
Penguins in the Middle East? Why not? The first Penguins to arrive in the United Arab Emirates arrived in Al Ain Zoo in circa 1978 and were probably the first ever to arrive in the Gulf. They were displayed in what was termed the new Aquarium. They did not do well. Two further facilities have been built since and now they thrive, prosper and breed well.
The Scientific Centre in Kuwait have kept them for a number of years now. The first birds to arrive in Dubai were imported by the Dubai Mall in 2008.
Ski Dubai first opened to the public in 2005. For those of you who are not familiar with Ski Dubai it is a huge Ski Dome attached to one end of Mall of the Emirates, one of the premier shopping malls in Dubai. The Ski Dome was built as sort of ‘extra’ to attract visitors to the Mall. It very quickly became more than that, becoming famous in its own right and is now firmly established as a ‘must see’ to visitors to Dubai. It is not however just a tourist attraction but is a popular amenity which is utilised daily by residents of Dubai. Skiing and Snowboarding take place every day and the expertise of some of the regular users could easily compare with those using Alpine slopes. It is only a matter of time before we have Emiratis competing and winning in the Winter Olympics.
The Ski Dome comes into periodic criticism by Green Groups who have even claimed that it uses as much energy to keep cool as a small country. There is no denying it does use some power but in truth it is so well insulated that it actually uses less energy than some Dubai Hotels. This is no mean feat because the temperature inside is maintained at around minus four Centigrade all year round whilst outside in the summer it is regularly forty five plus degrees. Besides, there are indoor Ski Slopes in Europe so why not Dubai?
So where did the idea of Penguins in Ski Dubai come from? There was never any early intention of housing any animals at all but penguins passed through the minds of several staff from shortly after opening. It was not till early in 2011 that more serious thought was given to the idea. Whatever was decided upon would need some serious planning because there was no way of adding an extension to the dome. It would need taking over space which was already utilised for something else.
Consultants were brought in, an architect was signed up and planning got under way. I was lucky enough to be offered the post of curator of penguins. The offer was very opportune because although happily settled in Thailand I was looking for a new challenge. I had two offers on the cards but this one was different. I have never claimed to be a ‘trainer’ or an expert on anything much less penguins but I had worked with Gentoo’s in 1967 and had been offered the post based on my curatorial experience and by virtue of the fact I had been working with penguins in Northern China just a few years before. Plus I had worked with innumerable Humboldt’s over the years.
I knew Ski Dubai, I had visited shortly after it opened and when I was offered the post it really had no immediate appeal. It went against what I believed in. However I was assured that the company were sincere about Conservation, Education and Research and so I accepted. I flew to Dubai to learn more. The management of Ski Dubai impressed me with their ideas and dedication. The idea really seemed to have merit.
Nobody (well hardly anybody) goes to a zoo to be educated. What about a Ski Dome? They may go to learn about skiing but learn about penguins? The more I thought about it the stronger my conviction became. We would be in a position to tell a group of people about pollution, climate change and penguins. A group of people who may never visit a zoo or read a newspaper. It was an opportunity to feed the minds of a whole new sector of society.
I arrived in Dubai in September 2011. My earliest visit was in 1967, I had watched the changes over the years. The first thing I did was start two personal lists. One was ‘Why I believe in Penguins in Ski Dubai’ and the other ‘Why I don’t believe in Penguins in Ski Dubai’.
Nothing was built, I was in from the beginning. I spent days and weeks visualising the project and how it would pull together. We wanted the birds comfortable and ‘happy’. We wanted to provide our public with something new and different, something which had never been done before.
At this point we had no birds and no staff but building got under way. We needed Penguin Trainers. There weren’t any. There were dolphin and Sealion trainers and there were people who had experience with Penguin marches in various facilities. We set about interviewing people from all over the world and pulled together a core group of caring people who had different skills from which the whole team, and the penguins would benefit. It would be unfair to single out any of them contributing more than the others, but I will. Nikki Morrison who joined us from the Cayman Islands was the leading light of the training team.
As the facility pulled together the team started to arrive. They set to work on writing SOP’s and generally familiarising themselves with Penguins. At this point we had no birds although Gentoo’s were our intended species. We had intended to bring them in from Japan. We even had them in quarantine there. However the UAE denied import because of Bird Flu. Then it looked like we would get them from France, then Sweden, then Scotland. We then had a huge stroke of luck and were offered ten King (Aptenodytes patagonicus) and ten Gentoo (Pygoscelis papua) Penguins from San Antonio in Texas. Third generation captive bred.
We sent one of our new team over to the US to familiarise himself with the birds before they left and to travel with them back to Dubai. Back at base all the other things which needed to be done, purchased and pulled together were well under way. I for one was very happy with the way things were going. We planned and rehearsed the arrival time and again till it was off pat perfect. The birds all arrived in good health on the 1st January 2012.
They were given time to settle in and familiarise themselves with their new home. At the same time the Penguin Training Team were watching and learning the characteristics of the individual birds. The two species are different and each and every bird is different in its own right.
Because the Penguins were going to be expected to meet a large number of people every day it was important to desensitise them to the unfamiliar. We put them through the equivalent of Police Horse Training. Penguins have a lot more going for them than most people can imagine. They are hardy, clever and loveable birds. Once they were settled they were divided up amongst the Trainers who became responsible for their care, wellbeing and training. Although we have learned a lot along the way this has not changed. We have a Primary Trainer and a Secondary Trainer who are wholly responsible for two or three birds. These Training Teams change every few months to avoid the birds being fixated on any particular Trainer.
Although we had a basic plan of what we wanted to achieve we have always recognised and accepted that change was inevitable and the whole programme has developed along with time.
Our Penguins are maintained on South Georgia time so their day length changes throughout the year, month by month. We believe that this is important for both moult and breeding. We have had to adjust the timings but only a little. The Penguins wake up early some months and later on others. We try never to disturb them till dawn. Their working day starts at twelve noon and goes on till about ten in the evening. No team of Penguins works the whole day (though some may like too), they take turns, and all get a ‘day off’ once a week. There are inevitable glitches during moult and breeding but generally speaking the whole process works extremely well.
Snow Penguin Program at Ski Dubai. Early Days
What we offer to our visitors is ‘Penguin Encounters’. The opportunity to meet, learn about and touch a penguin. All parts of the penguin programme are important but the touching is probably foremost. Once a visitor has touched a penguin they will surely never feel the same about them ever again. The basic package is the ordinary encounter. This is limited to 12 guests at a time. The encounters take place every half hour (more often if we are busy) and guests must be early in order to get dressed in warm clothes. It is lower than minus four where the encounters take place. The guests are collected by a ‘runner’ who takes them to our pre-encounter room. Here they are shown an instructive video and told what they can and cannot do in the encounter. This is important. We have people of all nationalities visiting and there are cultural differences of what is acceptable and what is not. The pre-encounter proves its worth all the time.
The Guests are then taken into ‘Encounter Area one’ where first they get the opportunity to see the penguins swimming in their Penguinarium or standing on the beach. Next the guests are seated and the trainer introduces them to two Gentoo Penguins. All of the trainers have a wonderful rapport with the visitors and educate them whilst the Gentoo’s edutain them. Key issues of conservation, climate change are imparted. Guests get the opportunity to ask questions and learn more. All the while the Gentoo’s play around their feet, chase skittles or retrieve. The guests then have a photographic opportunity and two or three at a time are asked to go and sit on some rocks. The trainer then asks the birds to go and sit amongst them. Some very memorable photos are taken. Next they proceed through to ‘Encounter Area Two’ to meet the King Penguins. Another trainer takes over. More information is given and all are given the opportunity to stroke and sometimes hug a King Penguin. Last questions….and the guests go away happy. We know from regular research that the guests love the experience that we offer. Some make several repeat visits and letters of commendation are common.
Hot Chocolate in Ski Dubai
Further to the Ordinary Encounter we also offer an ‘Exclusive’ and an ‘Ultimate’ Encounter. These are for smaller parties but offer more time, more information and the opportunity to meet more penguins. They allow the guests supervised tours behind the scenes and up onto the Penguinarium Beach. They are taken through the penguin sleeping quarters, into the kitchen and the filtration room. They also meet more of the staff. It is very much a personal tour and we have not had anyone who has not enjoyed it. We add little perks like a penguin painting to take home. The ‘Ultimate’ goes a step further in that guests also get access to a VIP room to rest afterwards and a mug of the famous Ski Dubai hot chocolate.
A more recent addition to the Encounter programmes is ‘Swimming with Penguins’. This goes a step beyond the ‘Ultimate’. The swim programme takes place just once a week and is limited to two people at a time. It takes up more staff time and so is a little more pricey but it is probably a once in a lifetime experience for anyone who takes it up.
Moving towards the swim programme we thought we would need to desensitise the birds to the activity. The staff then took turns either sitting on the side of the pool with their legs in the water or actually going into the pool with the birds. As it turned out the penguins themselves were not fazed at all and positively enjoyed the activity. The birds make the experience unforgettable. The guests themselves very quickly forget that the water temperature is just nine degrees and we have to persuade them to exit to move on with the experience.
Our shop window is our ‘Penguin March’ which is not really a march at all. A march is what was intended but the topography of Ski Dubai does not really lend itself to the activity. Our ‘march’ which can also be viewed from outside of Ski Dubai on a balcony in the Mall is a short introduction to the birds plus a primer on pollution and climate change and an introduction to the research work we have sponsored in Antarctica. It was financial contributions from Ski Dubai which allowed for the very first drones to be used in assessing the density of Antarctic Penguin colonies.
The March is the only ‘happy clappy’ activity we carry out. Visitors to Ski Dubai love it and so too, all importantly, do our Penguins. A few selected visitors are invited in to meet and greet a penguin. Those who were not chosen all have the opportunity to purchase a ticket and join a full encounter.
Although it was never something we planned for we have every year had four or five marriage proposals take place in our penguin facility. Some have been completely random but others are secretly prearranged. This way we can make the event really special.
We even had one couple fly from the USA especially to propose in our penguins.
What About Breeding?
What about breeding? Our birds were young when they joined us at the start of 2012 so we were not too hopeful of anything during their settling in period. They had too to adjust to the lighting cycle and a new way of life. The facilities themselves do not really lend themselves to breeding. This said it quickly became obvious to us that after being desensitized that our birds were so relaxed, so chilled out that anything was possible. We were not too surprised then when in 2013 we had two pairs of Gentoo’s each lay two eggs and one pair of kings. Sadly it was not 100% successful but we had fertility in both.
Since then we have bred successfully every year till today in December 2021 we have a total of 21 King Penguins and 25 Gentoo Penguins and both species are currently incubating eggs. That's more than doubled our numbers since the project began. Some of the breeding birds were actually hatched in Ski Dubai.
We are extremely positive about the outcome in the future. Although we more than happy to give the breeding pairs a holiday whilst incubating it wasn’t necessary. The Penguins themselves have chosen to continue with encounters and marches when they were not on egg duty.
Trainers and Training
I haven’t said much about training but then I am not a trainer in the full sense of the word. I have several certificates somewhere for people training but not for animals….and really there isn’t a huge degree of difference. All good zoo keepers train (whether they realise it or not) and all trainers keep (or should). One thing I have always believed is that training is enrichment and I would go so far today as to say it is the most important forms of enrichment. All our training is positive, there is no negative and many of our birds are as happy with a word or stroke reward as they are with a fish treat.
I would like to give very special thanks to the Penguin Team, both past and present who have worked so hard to pull together what is a unique world class experience. The team has been made up of trainers from Argentina, Ethiopia, England, France, India, the Netherlands, Mexico, the Philippines, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden and the USA and not forgetting our working breeding colony of King and Gentoo Penguins. The trainers and the penguins ARE the team.
I largely attribute our success on the fact the trainers and the birds are so closely bonded with affection for each other.
Staff come and staff go. Sometimes it is for love or marriage or to pursue animal work elsewhere. Many of the original Penguin Team remain but others have moved on to animal work in the UK, Eire, Scotland, Australia, Netherlands, Oman, Egypt, Spain and elsewhere in the UAE. What is really special is the bond as a team remains, almost like family and contacts remain. The team today are in the very capable and caring hands of the Curator Sarah Pillay. The team itself are all multi skilled, highly organized and accomplished.
Between us we know we have only just scratched the surface of what these remarkable birds are capable of.
And my lists? A long time ago the one took over from the other. I now firmly believe that Penguins in Ski Dubai was and is a very good idea.