Lockdown in the Marine Science Center - Animal care before research work

Submitted by Ulrike Buschewski on Mon, 08/31/2020 - 13:10
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Die vier Humboldtpinguine im Marine Science Center.

When the lockdown came in mid-March, the Marine Science Center (MSC) in Rostock Hohe-Düne also had to close for visitor traffic, as reported by Odense Zoo. Due to the hygiene concept of the University of Rostock, the employees worked in several teams and had to reduce their research work on site, as they had to take care of the animals and the maintenance of the facility. Doctoral student Tabea Lange is training 4 Humboldt penguins there to examine their hearing ability under water. She reports how she worked with the restrictions of the last months.

Animal care during the lockdown

From mid-March to July 1st we worked in shifts as emergency teams (fixed teams of 2) to care for the animals. For a long time the university did not allow more than that. In order to protect the health of humans and animals (it is unclear whether Covid-19 can be transmitted to marine animals, but humans can transmit diseases to seals and other animals, so it cannot be excluded) we had no contact to other employees except to the direct team partner, and we did not use public transportation.

Practically, each team was divided into 2 to 3 half days a week. The care of the 12 seals and 4 penguins unfortunately does not only include feeding and training, but most of the time is actually spent on the maintenance of the facility: cleaning of the outdoor facilities (only the penguins need 1.5 to 2 hours per day), repairs to ensure animal safety and cleaning of the fish kitchen (since we are a research facility, we have stricter regulations regarding hygiene in the fish kitchen and animal area than normal animal husbandry). Then, depending on the season, 30 to 60 kg of fish must be prepared and cut. In addition to feeding during training, we are also responsible for the health of the animals, starting with tooth cleaning and hygiene and some animals, especially the older seals, need extra attention and also time-consuming treatments with antibiotics.

Therefore, these months were actually almost exclusively limited to animal care - without research operations, as more time was not possible. Accordingly, there was only minimal penguin training, especially since I personally could only do 4 to 6 of 21 feedings per week.

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Tabea cuddles the Humboldt penguin Otto
Despite little time it is very important to spend 5 minutes in community with the animals, because they are very social and like to hang out with us. Otto is especially in need of cuddling.

Opening with restrictions

Since July 1st the MSC as company is open to visitors, but in limited form (reservation for entrance and animals become acquainted only in the apron on-line, maximally 10 people per hour, small groups to the animals and then with mouth guard and without direct animal contact). In principle, the university grounds are still pretty much closed to non-employees, as far as I know, and there are rules that only one person per office is allowed to work and mouthguards and no sharing of laboratory space. Of course, this is extremely difficult to comply with here, as we all use the small fish kitchen and there are small shared offices. So we still work in small teams on different days, without contact with the other team.

With the opening we work as 2 isolated teams (4 employees per team), because the amount of work has increased enormously due to the presence of visitors and the implementation of animal offers. So now I am with the animals one week 3 of 7 days and next week 4 of 7 days. Much more time for demanding training of all animals is unfortunately still not possible. Currently [mid-July] the penguins are preparing for moulting, the fish consumption is just twice as high, some animals eat with 4.3 kg body weight and nearly 1 kg of sprats per day. We expect them to start moulting within a week. So that we can stop the training completely for an unforeseeable time anyway, as last year's experience has shown that they eat 3 - 5 sprats per day and want to be left alone.

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Sprat and herring as fish cake on ice
Between the end of May and the beginning of July all four penguins had their 2nd or 3rd birthday, which we celebrated with a fish cake.