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A penguin love story: At 43, she’s the world’s oldest African penguin. Her mate is 13.

Feb. 14, 2023 Updated Tue., Feb. 14, 2023 at 4:49 p.m.

By Cathy Free Washington Post

Being the oldest African penguin in the world has its privileges.

When ET, who lives at Virginia’s Metro Richmond Zoo, turned 43 last month, she took a dip in her private pool and ate her birthday cake made with capelin fish and decorative ice.

“We wanted to make it the happiest birthday ever,” said Jessica Gring, one of ET’s keepers. “She’s a pretty special penguin with some incredible genes and a strong quality of life.”

Living such a long penguin life also has its drawbacks. African penguins are monogamous, and typically have one partner for life. ET is on her third, having outlived two of her mates, Melvin and Seldona.

But she wasn’t single for long. In 2012, she bonded with 13-year-old Einstein. Last year, penguin keepers noticed that the other young penguins weren’t being nice to ET, so they moved her and Einstein, now 13, to their own private enclosure.

“As she got older, some of the younger penguins were picking on her a little bit, so we made a retirement home for her to enjoy with Einstein,” said Jim Andelin, director of the Metro Richmond Zoo. “She can still see the penguin colony through the fence, but she gets along much better on the other side of the mesh wire.”

Zoo workers said female African penguins choose their mates, and May-December romances are not unheard of.

“She and Einstein get along fantastically, even though she’s older than he is,” said Gring.

“ET has developed a deep bond with him,” Andelin said of Einstein.

Gring added that the affection goes both ways.

“She and Einstein are very bonded to one another and enjoy spending a lot of quality time together,” she said.

ET came to the Virginia zoo in 1995 at the youthful age of 15, said Andelin. She was hatched at the Detroit Zoo on Jan. 28, 1980, then was sent to the Columbus Zoo, where she was named in 1982, the same year the movie “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” was released to great fanfare.

“We brought in 10 penguins (including ET) from the Columbus Zoo when we opened in 1995, and we’ve since hatched 299 penguins here,” said Andelin, noting that most of the hatchlings went to other zoos.

“None of them have had the life span of ET,” he said. “She’s a little slower now, but she’s still enjoying a happy life.”

According to worldwide zoo database records, ET has been the longest living African penguin in captivity in North America since 2018, when the previous record holder, a penguin named Opal, died at age 41 at an Omaha zoo, Andelin said.

“Our records show she’s the oldest,” he said.

African penguins typically live for 15 to 20 years in the wild, he added, but those in zoos can live much longer.

ET leads a quiet and comfortable life with Einstein at the Metro Richmond Zoo, Andelin said, noting that she is in good health except she has lost some of her eyesight and now receives medication for arthritis.

ET hatched about a dozen eggs during her time at the Virginia zoo, but she laid her last egg in 2016, said Gring, adding that one of her daughters lived until age 37.

“All of our penguins have their own individual personalities, and ET is no exception,” Gring said. “She loves to play with bubbles and mirrors, and she stays pretty active. She actually spends more time swimming than Einstein does.”

Keepers have installed a step inside her pool to make it easier for her to get into the water and have some fun, she said.

“She’s still a little feisty when we pick her up to do her vet checkups,” Gring said. “ET has a lot of fight in her, which is a good thing to see in a penguin her age.”

She and Andelin said there is much to admire about the world’s oldest African penguin, especially when many penguin species are under threat in the wild due to climate change, loss of habitat, oil spills, and commercial fishing.

African penguins have been listed as endangered since 2010 and have decreased in population by 95 percent over the last 100 years, Andelin said.

“We’re down to only about 40,000 of them in the wild,” he said, noting that there are about 900 African penguins living in U.S. zoos. “Fortunately, with our breeding program here, we’ve had some good luck with them.”

ET’s golden years revolve around swimming, napping and eating, said Gring. She will also sidle up to the fence now and then to take in the latest drama going on with the rest of the colony, which now numbers 42.

“We feed her as much as she wants to eat – anywhere from four to 10 herring, trout and capelin on an average day,” she said. “And when she wants some serious quiet time, she can go to her nest box (a small pet carrier) in her enclosure.”

Plans are underway to build a larger penguin exhibit at the zoo, she said, and everyone hopes that ET will be around to enjoy it.

“We’re having fun with her while we have her,” Gring said. “We don’t want to think about when she’s gone, so we’ve already started planning her 44th birthday party.”

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