Penguin's strange behaviour at Chinese aquarium unsettles visitors: 'Turned my stomach'

Having observed natural penguin behaviour in the wild, two leading scientists have raised concerns about the penguins' welfare.

Television has taught us emperor penguins can survive extreme conditions in Antarctica, but experts are concerned about the welfare of a pair kept in a “bland” indoor enclosure in China to entertain tourists.

Concerns were triggered after a photo was shared on social media showing a penguin at the facility with its head buried in a box of shaved ice. A scientist who was on a research trip and present when the images were snapped told Yahoo News Australia the bird remained motionless for over seven minutes.

Other shots highlight the artificiality of the enclosure. While the space is clearly air-conditioned, the snow on the walls is painted rather than real, fluorescent lights replace the sun and a white-panelled ceiling stands in for Antarctica’s expansive sky.

A penguin with its head buried inside shaved ice at the Nanjing Andover Underwater World.
A penguin was photographed with its head buried inside shaved ice. Source: Supplied

There are also concerns about the size of the space and the depth of the water tank — emperor penguins are the world’s deepest diving penguin and can plunge more than 100 metres beneath the ocean surface.

“It turned my stomach and it was extremely hard to bear witness to what these animals are having to suffer through in order for people to see them,” the scientist told Yahoo.

Having travelled to Antarctica more than 30 times and observed emperor penguins, they were disturbed by the enclosure at the Nanjing Andover Underwater World, situated over 280km inland from coastal Shanghai.

Penguin expert analyses enclosure penguin images

We provided images of the enclosure to Massey University penguin expert Professor John Cockrem to try and get a better understanding of the birds’ situation.

Looking at the flat enclosure and its small tank, he said it appeared to be a “very barren environment in which to keep birds”.

During his seven trips to Antarctica, he has never witnessed wild emperor penguins plunge their heads into snow. The closest behaviour he has seen was Adelie penguins doing so to access water, most likely to cool themselves.

Background shows the penguin enclosure at the Nanjing Andover Underwater World. Inset shows the penguin with its head in ice.
Experts are concerned the penguins do not have access to natural light. Source: Supplied

Some Chinese associate penguins with circuses

An image of the penguin was first shared to social media app Weibo by animal welfare group China Cetacean Alliance (CCA) in October, sparking anger and heartbreak from its followers.

A spokesperson from the group told Yahoo there has been a “worrying trend” of housing penguins in unnatural conditions like those seen at the aquarium.

“Some facilities put them into shopping malls for opening ceremonies to bring them attention,” the spokesperson said.

While many Chinese still associate penguins with circuses and performance, a growing number of younger people in the larger cities are becoming more aware of animal welfare, according to the CCA.

“It’s a big country, so the demographics are diverse. For people in small cities with limited access to information, they still like to go to marine parks just for fun. Because there aren’t many fun activities where they live,” they said.

“A lot of them don’t think about the animals’ situation. They just think: There is a park and I can take my kids there.”

“But then sometimes I receive comments from people saying: My kids are feeling troubled and they think the animals are really distressed.”

Yahoo has contacted the aquarium's owner Singapore-based Andover Leisure for comment.

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