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Pins and needles! Acupuncture therapy for penguins at Mystic

The aquarium's African penguins received the treatment for health conditions and to build trust with trainers
Credit: Mystic Aquarium
A penguin is treated with acupuncture at Mystic Aquarium

STONINGTON, Conn — Can anyone say spa day? 

The African penguins of Mystic Aquarium are receiving acupuncture therapy, which helps with certain preexisting medical conditions and forms trust bonds with their trainers, the Aquarium said.

Their most recent acupuncture session was with Yellow/Silver, a male penguin who received the treatment to help with his spinal condition. He was joined by his colony mate, Yellow/Pink.

The Aquarium said that acupuncture therapy is an opportunity for penguin trainers to build trust, practice positive behaviors, and strengthen the relationship between the trainers and the penguins.

During the sessions, Mystic's trainers work on instructing the penguins to sit calmly while the needles are put in place. The pricking is done by veterinarians specially trained in acupuncture.

Credit: Mystic Aquarium
A penguin is treated with acupuncture at Mystic Aquarium

The Aquarium said the penguins' ability to sit calmly becomes important during routine physical assessments, including eye and mouth exams, x-rays and when veterinarians need to listen in with a stethoscope.

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Once a penguin successfully sits calmly during the acupuncture, which can take up to 20 minutes, the trainers can then reward them with preening.

Preening is the act of gently scratching the back of the head. The Aquarium said the penguins in the latest treatment often signal their approval and pleasure by preening their trainers back during the treatments.

Credit: Mystic Aquarium
A penguin being preened during treatment

The acupuncture process, and the associated trust bonds and compassion between trainers and penguins is part of a larger mission to learn more about the penguins, the Aquarium said. 

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This includes learning how they behave, how they respond and interact with their environment and their overall health. This then helps the Aquarium better understand why African penguins in the wild continue to disappear. 

African penguins are an endangered species, with only 21,000 remaining. Since 2019, 25% of breeding pairs have been lost from the population, and 97% of the entire species in the last century. 

Mystic Aquarium said their trainers and veterinarians work hand-in-hand to gather vital health information from interactions with these birds, while also raising awareness of their dire situation in the hopes of saving African penguins from extinction.

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