For penguins, molting is a natural part of life. It’s a process that takes place every year, when old feathers are gradually shed in order to reveal a new coat.
But not for a penguin named Ralph living at the Marwell Wildlife center in Winchester, England. This 10-year-old Humboldt penguin is unique because every year he sheds all his feathers at once, very quickly, leaving his pale pink skin vulnerable to the hot sun and cold air. What to do with a penguin who is susceptible to sunburn and abrasions from the elements? Get him a wetsuit!
“He’s a naked penguin,” Bill Hall, Marwell Wildlife’s animal information officer tells PEOPLE Pets. “It doesn’t seriously affect Ralph. It doesn’t make him ill. It’s just something that he does.”
During an appearance on NBC’s Today show, Hall explained that his team figured that if wetsuits keep divers warm and dry, why not Ralph? Zookeepers at the facility fashioned the penguin a suit from the leg of a human wetsuit. When he put it on, Ralph adjusted to it almost instantly, and was ready to get on the move.
Born in Germany at the Nuremburg Zoo, Ralph relocated to Marwell Wildlife in 2006, presenting his condition to his caretakers that same year. Though the exact cause of Ralph’s sudden, instant shedding is unknown, Hall theorizes that it could be a number of different things – the environment change from Germany to the United Kingdom or he could have a slight hormone imbalance.
In past molting seasons when Ralph’s feathers shed quickly, he would simply be brought indoors to be fed and cared for while avoiding the daytime sun and the cold evenings. As a bachelor, that was fine. But now, Ralph has a wife named Coral and is a doting dad to two chicks, who he responsible for feeding. Leaving his family for weeks would not be an option.
With a stubble now starting to grow, Ralph should be able to ditch the suit in about two weeks. “Ralph is a very laid-back penguin,” says Hall of the little guy’s adjustment to his temporary uniform. “He’s very easygoing.”
Already looking ahead to next year, Hall says the team at wildlife center are working on the next generation of Ralph’s wetsuits. “We’re thinking of upgrading,” Hall says. A wraparound suit with Velcro down the back may prove to be an easier and better fit for Ralph. “What it comes down to is it’s the animal that dictates what we do.” Anything to keep him comfortable – and dapper like his tuxedo-sporting pals!
See more animals with special gear on PEOPLE Pets:
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