'I think they are wonderful creatures but they do stink' - A day in the life of a penguin keeper at Edinburgh Zoo

Lorna Moffat, 33, talks about the variety of personalities among the penguins at Edinburgh Zoo and how much they enjoy the bubble machines.

Friday, 17th January 2020, 11:45 am

‘My true passion is penguins, they are just so cheeky and full of character, each one has their own personality. And although the routine is the same, the experience over two days never is.

“I went to Napier University to study animal biology and through the course I got a weekend job in the carnivore section as a keeper at Edinburgh Zoo. A weekend job then came up in 2008 in the penguin enclosure, where upon graduating university I got a full-time job and have been here ever since.

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Lorna Moffat feeds the penguins, cleans the enclosure and does a head count every day to ensure the penguins are all present and correct.

“Through my work, I have had experience with carnivores, hoofstock animals and birds as you do not get to choose where you will be placed as an animal keeper.

“An average day for me begins at 8am with a head count – the Northern RockHoppers are easy as there are 24 of them, the Kings there are six but then there are 100 Gentoo penguins, so we have a tick sheet that you go by, marking off after seeing them and checking that each bird has been fed. You then have to prepare the various fish and medications for them before doing the feeding rounds, cleaning the enclosure and doing a bit of gardening work. We really are jacks of all trades.

“I like to think that I know most of them by looking at them and often you can identify them by their personalities. Kings often stay by themselves and are pretty reserved but they come over to feed and the youngsters are more curious. Gentoos are the most inquisitive and are very bold and cheeky, they will often sit on your feet. Rockhoppers are a mixed bunch – they are generally friendly but can often get up to mischief.


Lorna with the penguins.

“One day we had a penguin who we noticed was not eating. So we took him for a check-up and an X-ray, only to discover that he had eaten a child’s mitten that had fallen into the enclosure, thus giving him his name mittens. We have a Mrs Wolowitz who is known for her temper and her son Howard; a Kevin who was left home alone before being adopted by his grandparents and an Umbridge whose offspring are all named after the bad Harry Potter characters like Draco and Bellatrix.

“Of course our most famous penguin is Brigadier Sir Nils Olav III who is the mascot and colonel-in-chief of the Norwegian King’s Guard. Our connection with Norway started over 100 years ago when a Christian Salvesen whaling fleet brought the penguins to the zoo. The Norweigan army came to visit in the 60s as part of the military tattoo and they fell in love with the King penguins as they look very regal. Ever since then, they have visited and bestowed honours upon the King penguins.

“The best bit of the job is when it comes to the chicks hatching around February and March. We get to name them, weigh them every day and make sure their parents are feeding them properly. Penguins are easily amused but they absolutely love it when it snows and we build them snowmen. A couple of times a month we will bring out the bubble machines which they get very excited about. My work has also allowed me to travel to the Falklands for research – I took part in a population count last January with Falkland Conservation. There were over 7,000 Gentoo penguins there.

“There is a lot of interest in our work at Edinburgh Zoo as members of the penguin keeper network travel as far as Calgary or South Africa to come to learn about some of our methods. I am actually part of a penguin keeper group that is very active and shares the best practices from across the world.

Feeding the penguins

Hardest parts of the job

“I would say the hardest part of the job is when one of them passes away. You always tell yourself to not get attached in a professional setting but that is just impossible. They can live up till the age of 40 in captivity however in the wild their life span rarely goes beyond 20.

“To be honest, it can also be troublesome having to wash your hair every night, although they are wonderful creatures, they do stink and that can be hard to get away from.”