It’s not unusual for baby birds to suffer leg injuries when their parents sit on them for warmth and protection, but they either recover in the wild or respond to treatment in captivity. That wasn’t the case with Lucky — the Santa Barbara Zoo’s year-old Humboldt penguin — when his hurt leg continued to weaken as he learned to walk.
The problem got so bad, said zoo spokesperson Julia McHugh, that Lucky developed sores on his foot from putting awkward pressure on his bones. His handlers tried a number of treatments, including splints, foot wraps, and heel pads, but nothing worked and everyone worried about Lucky’s health and survival.
Then, inspiration hit when staff thought of Teva, the Santa Barbara-based shoe company. “We remembered that years ago, Teva fashioned a special boot for an elephant in San Antonio with foot issues,” said Lucky’s keeper, Rachel Miller. “We thought, if they can make a big elephant boot, they may be able to make a little penguin one.”
Pete Worley, Teva Brand president, said his company was happy to help. “Our Product Team is experienced at collaborating with athletes, and while Lucky’s certainly a unique athlete, his needs were not dissimilar to those of any world class kayaker or trail runner,” Worley said. “We went through a bit more trial and error due to the language barrier, but Lucky knew what he was looking for in performance footwear, and he let us know when we had it right.”
Teva’s design team measured and cast Lucky’s foot, going through several versions of boots before finding the right fit. The final design features technologies found in normal human footwear, including lightweight and waterproof material and tough traction. Teva will make Lucky’s booties for his entire life. The few he owns now are changed daily and washed.
Lucky is one of the zoo’s 18 Humboldt penguins. The species is categorized as vulnerable — one step away from endangered — and its worldwide population sits at 12,000 breeding pairs. Numbers are in serious decline due to dwindling food supplies and entanglement in fishing gear. Humboldt penguins are found along the Pacific Coast of South America, from Peru to Chile.
McHugh said the zoo will celebrate Lucky’s official footwear debut on May 19 at 11 a.m. Members of Teva’s design team, zoo staffers, and schoolkids on field trips are expected to attend.