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by Dorian Edwards, Santa Barbara Zoo

Everyone loves a good origin story: a great tale about how a hero came to be. You might have heard of a slightly famous penguin, a.k.a. the marvelous Monty, and his beautiful relationship with zookeeper Ellie. For the past couple of years, the global community has followed their adventures around the Zoo, and you may be curious as to how exactly this human and bird became so close. Well, you’re in luck: Ellie took the time to tell us all about the foundation that set her and Monty’s forever friendship.

Monty and his brother Cito as chicks

Monty and Cito as chicks

As with each of us, the story starts with Monty’s parents. Jenny and Andres are two bonded penguins who have a consistent history of laying eggs. Unfortunately, these eggs had a pattern of not surviving due to various immunity compromises. The keepers at the time decided that if the two lovebirds were to breed again, they would provide human care to aid the chick’s survival.

And our story begins.

In 2015, Ellie had just started as a bird keeper at the Santa Barbara Zoo. Monty and his brother Cito were born a few months after her arrival and she shares that it was not only her first introduction to caring for penguins, but to hand-raising birds in general. Monty was the first bird Ellie ever saw hatch.

While Monty’s egg was left to be incubated by his parents, which they did flawlessly, Cito’s was taken to the animal hospital for artificial incubation. The two were born on May 24 and June 1, respectively.

Raising the penguins was a dedicated process. “During their first three months of life, the bird team took turns coming in at 6 AM to make fish slushies and feed the hungry chicks,” Ellie shared. “We also made sure to teach them how to eat whole fish properly and, of course, how to swim.”

The keepers would wade in the water with the penguin brothers and encourage them while the two learned to use their own wings and tail. “Both became pros very quickly,” said Ellie.

After growing up with some helpful humans, the boys were introduced to the colony where they lived the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, Cito’s was cut short when he passed away a few years ago. His death was devastating to the Zoo and his team, who cared for him so deeply. He is honored through Monty’s son, Cito Jr., and as Ellie stated, Monty’s story cannot be properly told without him.

Monty and keeper Ellie

Monty and Ellie sharing some penguin snuggles.

Ellie says, “Monty and Cito were a package deal. We spent a great deal of time socializing them in hopes they could grow up to be ambassador penguins, which they did. Both boys came out for countless encounters, weddings, events, and parties, where they were excellent representatives of their species and stole the hearts of everyone they met.”

This statement still rings true as Monty, and the spirit he carries of Cito, continues to impact lives with his adventures. Ellie is the only keeper remaining at the Zoo who was a member of Monty and Cito’s original care team, and she gushes that their bond has only strengthened over the years.

“While I don't currently work with him on a daily basis, I do make the effort to visit him as often as I can and when I do, I am greeted with the best penguin cuddles, which humble me each time,” she says. “He is always excited to see me, regardless of how much time has passed.”

Overwhelmed with emotion when talking about Monty, a bird who has no idea the effect he has on so many, Ellie expresses that she feels incredibly lucky to be a part of his life. “Being able to take him on walks and having it captured for everyone to see has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Sharing that spunky little ball of feathers is one of my favorite ways to connect with guests,” she shared.

We believe it is safe to say the gratitude is shared by the Zoo and the community. We are incredibly lucky to be a part of these lives and witness a love that transcends all.

Deanna Buley

500 Ninos Drive, Santa Barbara, CA 93103