March 3, 2015 at 10:15am
Amanda Hamilton ’14

Mary Ellis Barnes '09A normal day at work for Mary Ellis Barnes ’09 can include being followed by a penguin named Chief, his neck up and wings outstretched, begging for his favorite snack of trout. Barnes, a Decatur native, is a zookeeper at Scovill Zoo tending the colony of Humboldt penguins, a new exhibit that opened in April.

Barnes’ first encounter with penguins began after she graduated from MU with a bachelor’s degree in biology. She headed for Chicago for a five-month marine mammal internship with Shedd Aquarium.

During her time there, while caring for dolphins, sea lions and more, she completed a research project with penguins. She conducted enrichment studies where she would provide penguins with a new object, then observe and report on their behavior. “When animals are in the zoo, they don’t have the same environment,” she says. “We give them sounds, smells and things they have to manipulate to get food.”

While working with the Scovill penguins this past winter, Barnes attempted to offer them snow for enrichment. They were terrified. “They all ran as far away from it as possible and huddled in the other room,” Barnes says. “They would not come out, even for fish. I had to get rid of the snow before they would eat.” Since they are native to Peru and Chile, they are warm-weather penguins acclimated to cold water from the Humboldt cold current (for which they are named), but they are not familiar with snow.

Aside from administering enrichment activities, Barnes also trains the penguins for certain behaviors. Although Chief is friendly and doesn’t mind being handled, most of the penguins keep their distance, and Barnes wants to get them used to being touched.

She also weighs the penguins regularly and would like to scale train them. “It’s nice to put the scale in the doorway, let them step on it, reward them and let them go on their way,” she says. Right now, they all crowd around her to get the fish reward for being weighed.

She learned many of her training techniques through research articles, but she’s also visited other zoos to see how they handle their Humboldt penguins. “I asked a lot of questions,” she says. “They showed me how to hold penguins, how to feed them, the kinds of fish they enjoy, the best way to clean the exhibits, how to scale train them, how to recognize illness, what vitamins to give them.”

Caring for penguins may be one of her main responsibilities now, but Barnes didn’t begin her career planning to work with birds. “I always wanted to work with big cats,” she says. “I wasn’t sure how I would feel about animals that swim in water, and then I fell in love with them. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about birds, and then I fell in love with them. I could probably work with anything.”

Her Scovill Zoo position also gives her the opportunity to spend time with a wide variety of animals, including wallabies, meerkats, emu and a sloth. She says she enjoys working at a smaller zoo where all the zookeepers know each other well and there is more interaction among the areas. For Barnes, being a zookeeper is more than taking care of animals, it’s also an educational role: “We show people what they can’t see in the wild and bring awareness to conservation.”

Whether she’s watching meerkats play, socializing wolves or feeding penguins, Barnes enjoys seeing the variety of characters in the zoo: “It’s really cool to see all the personalities in the different animals. With my penguins, they all have little quirks. It’s fun to see that come out.” Some of the penguins are curious, waddling after lights or reflections on the floor and rocks. They even showed interest in visitors at a recent zoo event by following glow sticks along the glass. As social animals, if one gets in or out of the pool, they all follow. They take turns carrying around a rubber doorstop, sometimes getting impatient and trying to grab it from each other. A couple of the males are also very vocal.

Noticing their personalities comes not only from her observations as a zookeeper, but also from a simple enjoyment of visiting the animals. She may work with them every day, but Barnes still likes to watch the animals. She enjoys seeing the penguins “porpoise” out of the water when they work up speed swimming in the pool, or how they stretch their necks way out with wings flapping. She and her husband, Zach (who loves that she works at the zoo), visit other zoos and occasionally stroll through Scovill Zoo together. “It doesn’t get old,” says Barnes, “It’s still exciting.”  

Barnes tends to animals at Scovill Zoo

Scovill Penguins

Scovill Penguins

Penguins eating

Humboldt penguins

Barnes at the zoo


Amanda Hamilton ’14 was a writing intern for the alumni office and continued to write for Quarterly part time.