On the cuteness scale, a penguin strolling along in custom-made shoes is tough to beat.
But it’s a regular sight at the New England Aquarium in Boston, where Beach Donkey, a 24-year-old African penguin, is often seen walking through the exhibit halls in specialized footwear.
No, they aren’t flip-flops.
The penguin wears the rubber-soled boots as part of a treatment plan for a foot condition causing large calluses, aquarium officials said. She was diagnosed with pododermatitis, or bumblefoot, during the summer of 2020, a condition that can lead to infection of the bone.
After getting the penguin accustomed to working with humans, the veterinary staff created a health care plan that included the footwear, as well as medications, surgeries, and hands-on foot treatments.
She began wearing the shoes in December 2021, according to senior penguin trainer Amanda Barr. As incentive for letting humans handle her feet, she was allowed to roam the halls of the aquarium.
“She has always been a curious bird and seemed to really like the opportunity to explore the aquarium outside of her exhibit space,” Barr said in a statement. “Of course, our staff also loved when she would make appearances in unexpected places.”
Beach Donkey, who got her name from a nickname for African penguins based on their donkey-like vocalization, underwent foot surgery in August and had bandages on her feet for several weeks while they healed, Barr said. Now, she periodically wears the shoes to “stay comfortable” in them if she needs to wear them full time again.
The penguin is one of 27 “geriatric” penguins at the aquarium, exceeding a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years in the wild, Barr said. Many elderly birds require special treatment, including eye drops, acupuncture, and physical therapy. Each penguin is trained to be comfortable with human touch in case health issues arise and they need care.
Since bumblefoot is a condition that can recur in some animals based on genetics, body weight, and activity level, aquarium staff is closely monitoring the penguin so they can quickly treat the ailment again if needed, Barr said.