Penguin encounters in the city
In a world where more and more humans live in cities, and far from truly natural areas, is it any wonder that wildlife conservation nears the bottom of most people’s priorities? Ski Dubai, an indoor ski resort home to a group of Gentoo and King penguins, is trying to solve this problem by enabling inhabitants of the ‘city built on sand’ to meet animals most could never dream of encountering otherwise. I met with Sarah Pillay, head trainer at SnowPenguins of Ski Dubai, to learn more about this unique programme, the potential it has to inspire conservation action and what it takes to become an animal trainer.
‘Creating experiences so memorable that guests will be inspired to improve their own environmental conservation efforts’
I was lucky enough to join a small group of guests as they entered the penguin’s enclosure and what struck me most was the luck of awe on everyone’s face. Imagine stepping into a cold and crisp winter setting when you have been strolling under the Arabian sun all afternoon. For many visiting the penguins in Dubai, it is not only the first time they are meeting penguins but sometimes the first time they are experiencing cold temperatures as well as seeing and touching snow.
SnowPenguins is in fact the first encounter programme of its kind and harbors a huge potential for raising awareness about endangered wildlife. As Sarah Pillay explains ‘What we offer to our visitors is the opportunity to meet, learn about and touch a penguin. Once a visitor has touched a penguin they will surely never feel the same about them ever again.’ She recalls guests coming into the enclosure scared of penguins or birds in general and leaving completely converted. Many have come up to her afterwards and personally asked what they can go to help save these birds of which many species are threatened with extinction.
‘We always maintain that we are not a photo opportunity’
As head trainer, Sarah is ‘responsible for managing and working alongside the other trainers, directing the penguin training program and maintaining high quality educational encounters and presentations all while ensuring the health and wellbeing of the penguins’. This includes activities like preparing the penguin’s fish and vitamins for the day and seeing to pool maintenance as well as managing the daily encounter schedule.
I learn that these encounters go way beyond simply meeting and posing with the penguins as I listen in on Sarah briefing a new group of visitors. As well as introducing the species, she explains that the penguins are part of an on-going research project in partnership with Hubbs-Seaworld Research Institute whereby data from the colony is compared to colonies living in Antarctica. Guests, especially children, also have the opportunity of participating in a ‘Professor Penguin’ programme during which the trainers teach them about the behavior and biology of the penguins and what they can do at home to help the penguins out in the wild.
‘You should always lead by example’
It is clear that all the trainers are very dedicated to protecting these penguins and Sarah even jokes that she spends more time with the penguins that with her kids at home. It is this kind of commitment, I learn, which landed Sarah her first job as a trainer. ‘At school, I started volunteering at weekends and holidays at my local aquarium (…) this is where I got some insight into what the job really entails and this is how I got my first job because I had proven myself by volunteering my time to a cause I was truly passionate about’.
She advises someone hoping to follow in her footsteps to ‘live by the principles you teach. I cannot ask a guest to recycle if I do not recycle myself’. She also recommends to get involved with animals as soon as possible to ‘give yourself a head start’ but also to learn if the job is right for you. ‘It’s not all glamour, she explains. It’s also cleaning up the poop and smelling like fish when you go home. Not everyone, even if they love animals, will accept these thing as part of their life’.
Keen to learn more about penguin biology and conservation? The founders of the Global Penguin Society published a great book in 2013 that you can purchase here. Want to get involved in penguin conservation efforts? SANCCOB, Cape Town, offer great year-round internships and the citizen science project, Penguin Watch, offers the public the chance to help collect data on Antarctic penguin colonies online, here.