Once the crowds had thinned and Lucky the penguin had put on his everyday black shoe, he rejoined the rest of the flock as the birds squawked and swam in front of delighted children and their parents.
Even through he walks with a decided limp, Lucky is now able to blend in and frolic with the rest of the 17 Humboldt penguins at the Santa Barbara Zoo, thanks to a special shoe developed by footwear manufacturer Teva, a brand of Deckers Outdoor Corp., based in Goleta, Calif.
Santa Barbara Zoo CEO Rich Block thanked Teva and Deckers representatives Thursday during Lucky's public debut.
"Lucky was born with a foot that didn't develop right. But he's a great swimmer and that makes him a great athlete," Block said. So the zoo decided to enlist the aid of Teva, which had created a boot for an elephant at a zoo in San Antonio years ago.
Lucky's condition was first noticed by Rachel Ritchason, the zoo's animal care coordinator of birds. The bird was hatched on April 15, 2010, and although veterinarians checked him regularly, there was no indication of any problems until he was weaned, said Ritchason, who is in charge of the zoo's birds.
"We pull them from the parents at 30 days to wean them, and take them off the exhibits until they learn how to swim. When we put him on the ground for the first time, we noticed his foot had not developed normally," Ritchason said.
X-rays showed that the bird's bones weren't broken, but Ritchason said that while penguins normally walk on their toes, Lucky was walking on his ankle. That meant he was developing sores from putting pressure on an unpadded area of his foot. She said a penguin growing up in the wild with such a condition would most likely have died.
The zoo veterinarians wrapped the foot and padded the ankle area. Meanwhile, Ritchason remembered hearing about how Teva had developed the elephant shoe about five years ago. She made a video featuring the fuzzy, hobbling penguin chick and sent it to the company, which responded to the challenge.
According to Stuart Jenkins, vice president of business development for Deckers, it was a challenge to develop something the bird would wear.
"How many people think penguins wear shoes?" Jenkins asked. "Not many."
He said the challenge was to create a shoe that could go into the water and out, keeping the foot dry, while also creating traction so the bird could climb in and out of his pool. The shoe had to be comfortable because the bird has to wear it all the time and he would squawk and peck at it if it wasn't. The shoe also had to have padding where Lucky's foot makes contact with the ground so he won't develop sores.
Jenkins said the breakthrough came when one of his designers went home and stitched a complete boot for the bird. The bird had rejected an earlier splint-type device.
Jenkins said, "There are some things we learned in this project that will make it into products for people."
A plaque telling Lucky's story will be part of the permanent penguin exhibit at the zoo, and Teva has promised to keep the bird in shoes for life
(Anne Kallas is a reporter for the Ventura County Star in California.)