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Penguins Cincinnati Zoo

Edited by Dr. Yin’s former research assistants: Lynna Feng and Jenna Hardy

Have you ever had a dog or cat who just doesn’t play much with toys and wished that he did? Rickey Kinley, Senior Aviculture Keeper at the Cincinnati Zoo, had a similar issue with the zoo penguins that he cared for, and decided to find a solution.

The Need For Enrichment

I had the chance to talk with Ricky about his penguins and how he trained them to enjoy playing with their toys. “After researching the life history of penguins in the wild and reading the AZA (American Zoos and Aquariums) Penguin Husbandry Manual, what became apparent was that penguins in the wild spend most of their lives swimming in the ocean and therefore when in a captive environment should probably spend a lot of time swimming as well. When examined, it was noticed that our penguins at the zoo didn’t swim very much. The obvious next idea was that it would be great to find a way to increase the swimming time of the penguins within our collection. Additionally I had an idea for a more efficient way to use enrichment with penguins, which was to train them to use/play with whatever enrichment items that we provided.”

Those of us with cats, dogs or horses might first wonder why the big fuss? Our cats and dogs sometimes spend 20 hours a day just lounging around and rarely play or exercise. Most cats don’t spend 8 hours hunting a day like their feral counterparts might, and dogs rarely spend hours on end scavenging for food like their village dog counterparts. In fact, most of us wouldn’t want our cats and dogs hunting and scavenging. However, for any animal living under human care, whether in a zoo or as a pet, our goal is to provide an environment where the animals are mentally and physically enriched. That means an environment where they engage in the normal range of activities of the species and show body language and behavior that indicate that they are happy rather than fearful, scared, frustrated, or even depressed and uninterested.

Getting Started

Around the year 2000, Kinley and the keepers first worked on getting the penguins to interact more in the water. Even though penguins are natural swimmers, this was more difficult than one might think because swimming to eat fish wasn’t in their behavioral repertoire due to the industry standard to hand–feed penguins. In the wild penguins only get food from the water whereas many penguins in zoos are usually only hand–fed. The continuation of hand–feeding only was probably due to historical practices when very little was known about penguins and how to properly care for them, so strict measures were taken to assure that each bird received enough daily food. Unlike most bird species, penguins are known for their exceptional ability to go for long periods of time without food during breeding season, during their weaning period, and as a way to cope with living in some very harsh environments. This is in part why it is so advantageous for penguins to have a lot of body fat.

In the wild, one source of water enrichment would be hunting for live fish. Most zoo goers would object to seeing this act of nature occurring within a zoo, so keepers were limited to using dead fish. Instead, to increase the penguins’ overall activity they decided to add enrichment devices.

Kinley and his crew worked on training the penguins to play with enrichment devices in the water. This is a little trickier than it might seem since wild animals tend to be fearful of new objects the same way a pet who hates injections or toenail trims is fearful of syringes and nail trimmers. So the first step was to teach the penguins that the funny plastic hollow balls and later “hamster balls” were safe. Says Kinley, “The toy balls were brought into the enclosure during feeding times to cause a positive association with food.” This positive association was caused by first placing the hamster balls about 5 feet from their feed stations. This was close enough for them to be aware, but not close enough to cause them fear or discourage them from eating. Then, each day, the balls were moved one foot closer until the penguins seemed comfortable near them while being fed.

“Once comfortable with the toys, the toys were moved to the water during feeding times and small fish were thrown near the toys. This caused the penguins to push the toys around, sometimes enthusiastically.”

The training to eat in the water began with the usual behavior during feeding times of all the penguins within the colony rushing over to the feed bucket ready to be hand–fed. At this time when they were all close together they were then placed in the water which is very close to the feeding area. Initially the birds just hurried out of the pool back over to be hand fed. But while the penguins were still in the water attempts were made to hand feed them. This was mildly successful at first. Most of the birds ignored the hand–feeding in the water, instead opting to be hand–fed on land. This is probably due to them having a long history of only receiving food on land and therefore they may not have readily recognized the fish as food when it was in the water. Fortunately, after about a week, several penguins began eating a couple of fish when hand–fed from the water. This process was continued until the 8 week mark when all of the penguins were eating from the water except for the king penguins, who took 17 weeks.

Signs of Success

As more and more penguins began eating from the water, steps were taken to throw fish further and further away from the water’s edge. This was to encourage them to disassociate the need for a human hand having to be near the fish in order for them to consider the fish as food. We were most pleased with the training at the 17 week stage because that is when all the penguins entered the water for food upon the keeper entering the exhibit with a bucket of fish. During previous observations the penguins were noted as swimming about 20 minutes at most per day, just enough time to clean their feathers. 

The birds now swim much more than they did prior to the training, sometimes up to 4 to 6 hours per day, in comparison to 20-30 minutes per day before training began. The birds also spend more time swimming before and after being fed. There is no significant visible difference in appearance of muscle tone due to penguins being a species of bird who, morphologically speaking, has a naturally high body fat content.  However, obesity was never an issue within our collection. No new cases of bumblefoot occurred in any penguin residents of this exhibit. Bumblefoot is a fairly common affliction within captive penguin species.

Improving On Their Successes

That in itself was pretty good but keepers wanted even better and more consistent results. So it was decided to try modifying a few “hamster balls” by enlarging the side slots with a dremel tool. “The plan was to place small commercially available frozen and then thawed fish inside the “hamster balls” just before placing them in the water. This would allow the penguins to manipulate the hamster ball enrichment devices in a way that would cause fish to fall through the constructed larger holes.”

This method of enrichment was very successful based on how readily the penguins interacted with the devices to acquire the food inside the floating devices. The birds went after the balls eagerly. They were so interested in the hamster balls, in some cases, the birds would spend hours manipulating the balls to get fish from them. This was particularly exciting because this extent of foraging for food is more reflective of wild penguin swimming behavior. The penguins did not particularly interact with the balls once all the fish were gone, but they were documented spending more time in the water after the program was established.

Other Types of Penguin Enrichment

While penguins are aquatic birds, they don’t spend all their time in the water. Kinley and rest of the zookeepers have an enrichment strategy for this part of their charges’ lives too.

In the winter months, when it is cold enough, our king penguins are walked out of doors to spend the day outside, enjoying the snow, wind, and winter sunshine.

While Kinley and his crew put quite a bit of thought into providing enrichment for their penguins, our cats and dogs have ready-made toys that they can be trained to enjoy. Says Kinley, who has been training and grooming dogs professionally for 17 years and has also worked with birds ranging from Rhinoceros hornbills to Blue-breasted kingfishers, “With pet dogs, positive reinforcement based training seems to be hugely enriching to them.” And the average pet owner has more time per pet than the average zookeeper might have for each individual animal.

So, with a little thought and planning, our pets can experience an increasingly enriched life the way the penguins at the Cincinnati Zoo now do!

For more information about the penguins at the Cincinnati Zoo and this particular enrichment study, visit:

Rickey Kinley is a Senior Zoo Keeper who has led a 21 year career employed by the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden in the Aviculture department. Rickey has presented all over the United States on penguin training techniques. Rickey also was involved in the Trinidad and Tobago blue and gold macaw reintroduction project where he went to Trinidad to release some of these birds into the wild. Rickey is the owner of Gary’s Professional Dog Grooming and Training where he trains dogs with positive reinforcement based techniques and offers low stress grooming for dogs. Rickey additionally teaches leadership seminars using positive reinforcement animal training concepts to help employees of companies to better work with each other.


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