Skip to main content
Puffin Exam Parade

At 8 a.m. the check-up line was assembled. Two veterinarians, two veterinary technicians, a curator and two Rocky Shores keepers all stood poised at three long tables in the seabird underwater viewing area at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Carefully lined up on the tables were a scale, spare leg bands, clippers, vials, syringes primed with dewormer and vaccine, and plenty of towels.

“Are we ready?” called a third keeper by the door – staff biologist Cindy Roberts.

vet tech injecting puffin
Veterinary technician Julie Lemon gives a West Nile virus vaccination to a puffin.

The team nodded, drawing a deep collective breath.

“Okay then,” responded Roberts, and brought in a small blue crate. “Here we go.”

It was time for the annual physical exam of the zoo’s 22 tufted puffins, three horned puffins and six common murres – and it would take all eight pairs of hands to get the feisty birds through their check-ups.

Checkups like these are an important part of caring for Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s animal residents. Examining nearly 30 birds takes a lot of coordination and involvement. It is well worth it for the health and wellness of the flock of puffins and murres. Veterinarians will check for anything that needs extra attention while taking the opportunity for routine preventative health care like administering vaccines and overall body checks.

Coming back home

keepers banding puffin
Curator Malia Somerville (left) adjusts a murre’s leg band, assisted by keeper Cindy Roberts.

It was the perfect morning to examine all the seabirds, who had been living behind the scenes for a few months while zoo staff renovated their habitat. Now rockwork had been fixed, windows cleaned, and some of the steep ramps leading up the birds’ nesting cliff had been bumped out to make them more accessible for older birds.

One by one, 25 puffins and six murres were taken out, examined, weighed, vaccinated and dewormed: Jessie, Ricky, Brett, Smalls, Houdini, Alex, Larry, Sassy and the inventively named A-murre-ica.

Curator Malia Somerville stepped in to help add new leg bands to birds who needed them. (Despite having names, all the zoo’s seabirds are identified by colored leg bands, which help keepers care for them daily.)

“It’s a great opportunity to examine all our birds at once, to check their health,” said head veterinarian Dr. Karen Wolf.

First – avoid the beak

vet and keeper holding puffin
Keeper Cindy Roberts (right) holds a puffin’s beak as veterinarian Dr. Karen Wolf prepares to deworm.

“This one’s Charlie,” announced fellow staff biologist Sheriden Ploof, scooping up a squirming puffin with gloved hands and expertly popping her into a lidded white bucket on the scale.

As staff biologist Mandy Betz noted the weight, Roberts cautiously lifted the lid and Ploof swooped in to catch Charlie before she took advantage of the situation.

Roberts adjusted her grip on the bird – gentle but firm, one hand surrounding the strongly-flapping wings, the other extricating a thumb from Charlie’s sharp yellow beak.

“It’s amazing how strong they are,” she said, cradling Charlie against her chest while Wolf bent in to examine her eyes and beak.


Next – draw blood

puffin claw
Examining a puffin claw – long and sharp.

After listening to Charlie’s heart and feeling her overall body condition, Wolf gingerly examined a webbed orange foot, calling out notes to Betz and avoiding Charlie’s long, curved claws ¬– perfectly adapted for digging burrows in cliffs.

They laid the wriggling puffin down, arms grasping Charlie like a complex game of Twister, while vet tech Julie Lemon carefully drew a blood sample for testing overall health.

Meanwhile, Ploof had started Mikey the murre along the check-up line, this time with intern veterinarian Dr. Kat Reed and vet tech Sara Dunleavy in charge.

keeper taking notes
Keeper Mandy Betz takes notes for the puffin exams, held in the underwater viewing area at Rocky Shores.

As Wolf gently injected Charlie with West Nile virus vaccine and Roberts held her beak open for the dewormer, the second trio began weighing and examining Mikey, everyone calling out comments to their scribes.

“Mikey’s a girl,” confirmed Ploof.

“She needs a microchip,” reminded Betz.

“Charlie’s mouth area looks great,” noted Wolf.


Back home

keeper releasing puffin
Cindy Roberts releases a puffin into the pool at Rocky Shores.

One by one, after each exam, Roberts and Ploof gathered up each bird and released it, fluttering, into the clean aquamarine water of the seabird habitat.

“There you go! I love you!” called Roberts after Husky, a particularly feisty puffin, skittered over the water. “I know you don’t love me right now!”

Husky turned a baleful glance on Roberts before fluffing feathers and joining the flock.

“These guys are great,” Roberts says. “They’re so sassy. I love taking care of them.”