Staff and friends of San Francisco Zoo & Gardens said goodbye to one of their most esteemed residents Wednesday as Captain EO, the park’s oldest Magellanic penguin, passed away at age 40.
One of the founding members of the zoo’s Magellanic penguin colony when he arrived at Penguin Island with 51 others of his kind in 1984, Captain EO is remembered not only as Magellanic—as in the Strait of Magellan—but majestic.
“Captain EO was truly a legend and a penguin that has seen generations of penguins succeed him,” Tanya M. Peterson, CEO and Executive Director of San Francisco Zoological Society, said in a press statement Wednesday. “This is an animal that was much beloved by years of penguin caretakers, allowed innovations in the care of geriatric penguins, was known by penguin aficionados worldwide and adored by millions of zoo visitors since his arrival in 1984.”
Indeed, since the 52 wild Magellanic penguins (Sphenicus magellanicus) were brought to the zoo to generate a new colony on Penguin Island—a 200-foot-long outdoor pool that had just been converted into a habitat for penguins, complete with burrows and a rocky landscape to replicate the coastal shores of their native Argentina and Chile—the Captain has increased his family mightily.
Captain EO—named for the character in the old Michael Jackson ride at Disneyland—has 26 offspring, 31 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, many of whom can be found in Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) institutions around the country.
Quinn Brown, Assistant Curator of Birds, may have known Captain better than anyone, having worked with him for more than 20 years.
“While we will never have the honor of embracing and connecting with Captain in this way again, he will always have a monumental place in our hearts,” Brown said in the statement. “He represented a part of San Francisco Zoo history and the penguin world that cannot ever be forgotten. He has inspired countless guests and caretakers and will be missed by all.”
Eulogizing his late friend, Brown emphasized that, although flightless, the “sophisticated gentlemen” was always far above getting mixed up in any bird tomfoolery.
“While many of the penguins here have personalities that are endearing and even comical, Captain was admired for having a personality that was more of an older sophisticated gentleman,” Brown recalled. “He was a dedicated partner to his long-time mate, a defender of his burrow and with animal care staff, he did not partake in the usual shenanigans of stealing fish from others, or pushing his way through the crowd for fish. Instead, he would quietly and politely sit on the rocky beach and wait his turn for his meal, then go out for a swim or home. He was one-of-a-kind.“
It is a sad occasion, but considering that most Magellanic penguins live just 20 to 30 years, at approximately 40 years of age, the Captain actually had a good, long waddle.
As one zoo rep told us, “He was a beloved little guy.”