Acupuncture Aims To Heal Penguins, Giving Old Birds New Life


NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Of the 7.6 billion people alive in the world, four have walked on the moon. About the same number practice acupuncture on penguins.

One of them is in New Orleans.

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Metairie-based veterinarian Cyndi Benbow is the intrepid needle handler, and one 36-year-old African penguin at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas is lucky to have her services on call.

Hatched on Jan. 1, 1982, in California, Audubon's Ernie is the third-oldest penguin in captivity, having lived about 10 to 15 years longer than most healthy penguins in zoos and aquariums and about three times longer than his typical counterparts in the wild.

But time has taken a toll. The geriatric bird suffers from debilitating arthritis, making it hard for him to swim. Being blind in one eye doesn't help, either.

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With those conditions, Ernie wouldn't last long in the wild. The world would have one less example of the already endangered African penguin. But not at the New Orleans aquarium — not if Benbow and the Audubon staff have anything to say about it.

That's what led Ernie to have his fourth acupuncture appointment Sunday, after struggling to waddle along in recent days.

And even though he's not the biggest fan of being held — Ernie was raised by other penguins, not humans — he didn't seem to mind having needle after needle stuck in his back during the 10-minute session.

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The result was essentially a brand new bird, as Ernie quickly took a dive into the water and swam as if he were a 2-year-old, according to his handler and Audubon senior aviculturist, Tom Dyer.

"I'm just so overwhelmed right now watching this bird," Dyer said. "You know, that is just the best. It's emotional. It's . wow. Thank you, Dr. Benbow."

Dyer said he's spent almost two decades with Ernie — ever since he came to Audubon. During that time, Dyer said, Ernie's become something of a son to him.

That made Sunday's procedure even more special to him.

"Watching his feet in a better position and watching him walk better and watching his life become more comfortable means the world, you know. It's Father's Day, and that's my kid right there, and making your kid's life better is why we're here, I guess," Dyer said.

Ernie's rapid improvement resulted from having needles inserted into his nerve clusters, leading to increased blood flow to the joints and improved circulation. They also decrease muscle tension in his back, which he has been overworking to compensate for his bad legs and ankles.

Benbow has done veterinary acupuncture since 2004, on everything from lizards to horses. She said she's seen animals go from practically paralyzed to walking within six weeks, and when she heard from Audubon's associate veterinarian Jamie Torres that there was a penguin in need, she jumped at the chance.

"It's always good to have a challenge," she said. "And not that many people can say, 'I did acupuncture on a penguin and really helped him out.' "

Benbow's relationship with Ernie was made possible by a chance meeting she had at a conference with Torres, who, before coming to Audubon, worked in private practice in Virginia and had an acupuncturist on staff.

The two talked about animal acupuncture, and when Torres started noticing Ernie's anti-inflammatory drugs just weren't keeping his arthritis in check, she knew where to turn.

On May 27, Torres watched as Benbow gave Ernie his first treatment. Torres said he came out of that session a little sleepy, but within a few days, keepers noticed he was no longer favoring his right leg as he navigated rocks in his habitat.

"You noticed all of a sudden he wasn't stumbling anymore," she said. "He was coming down more confidently."

Torres said he also began tucking his legs underneath himself while swimming, not dragging them lazily like before. "He was swimming much more like a normal penguin," she said.

After the second treatment, he jumped right into the water and swam constantly. He was now among the first to eat at feeding time, and keepers didn't have to wake him up.

"His energy continues to improve and we haven't even reached our peak yet," Torres said.

Though acupuncture has been used in veterinary medicine for a couple of decades, it still isn't widespread, according to Torres. But, she said, more and more veterinarians, including zoo veterinarians, are now taking steps to learn the practice.

And while more remains to be learned about the effects, for Dyer at least, the results speak for themselves.

"This is the definition of a good day," Dyer said. "This is a good Father's Day."

-by Nick Reimann and Chad Calder, AP reporters

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