When Ric Urban walks into the area of Newport Aquarium where the African Penguins are housed, they all waddle over to him…especially one little girl, Paula. It is yet one more reason why this man who has been doing his work (Newport Aquarium is his fifth employer) for 35 years has no plans for retiring. He loves what he does. It is his passion and his purpose.
“With the birds at the Aquarium, I have been able to promote penguin conservation to a whole new level. When people see and meet a penguin, they are making a connection that will hopefully empower them to do something,” he said.
As the Aquarium’s Chief Conservation Officer, Ric’s job is about promoting the mission of conversation in our community…and around the globe. He wants visitors of Northern Kentucky’s destination favorite to be enthralled while they are there, and leave with information to become interested and engaged in saving wildlife and the ecosystem beginning in their back yards.
However his job entails so much more. On any given day, he could be testing water, speaking to groups, teaching classes, creating programs, or traveling the globe. He has participated in many research projects through his career. This past spring he was appointed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to be the program coordinator for the AZA SAFE African Penguin Identification Project. The goal of the Project has been to tag at least 10% of the world’s declining population of African Penguins over the next 3 years. That’s around 5,000 birds to be tagged and identified in South African and Namibia. It is an especially important program as African Penguins were placed on the endangered species list in 2010. The Newport Aquarium is one of 50 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums that house these birds, and Ric did the original hand feeding of all eight that are on display in Northern Kentucky. Paula is often their ambassador, traveling with Ric on appearances to local events. I actually met Paula and Ric for the first time at a Muscular Dystrophy fundraiser.
When I asked Ric about his most interesting journey, he brought up the 2012 research project in Peru to learn about the Humoldt Penguin. They were working to prevent the decline in population of these birds, just as what has happened with the African Penguin. Guano, the fecal matter produced by sea birds, is a very effective and natural fertilizer, and of great value for the harvesters. The problem is that, being a natural pesticide, also makes guano an excellent place for Humoldt Penguins to lay eggs, and when the guano is harvested it has the potential for great harm to the Humoldt Penguin population. Ric was an observer. He was in South America to make sure the nests were undisturbed during harvesting. The whole experience was one he will never forget.
He shared this story.
“It was exciting to see wild Humoldt Penguins for the first time and go out with Peruvian biologists to watch what they are doing to save and protect the species, and preserve the ecosystems. Peru is one of the largest reserves for that penguin.
We were definitely roughing it. There was only power for three hours in the evening and no refrigeration. For toilets we had to use bail water from the ocean. We had male and female sides of the bathrooms, and would do bucket brigades every few days to fill the needed supply. We had to walk to the headquarters, about two miles away and across a coastal desert, to get a few minutes of shower time.
One night after our day was through, a young biologist invited me to explore. We wandered down into this area where the coastline had fallen onto the beach and created a long cave. The biologist had seen birds go there and then disappeared, and decided to follow them one day. That night he told me to crawl under a rock, and then we went on this incline that must have been 20 to 30 feet. You could feel the bottom of the cave below your belly and the space was so small that you couldn’t raise your neck. Then we got to the top and there must have been dozens of birds sitting on nests.
It was incredible. No where have I ever read about penguins nesting in the darkness of caves. It took everything I had ever learned and added a whole new level.”
With stories like that, it is no wonder why Ric has no immediate plans for retirement.