Working Wonders: Ski Dubai's penguin trainer on why it's her dream job

Sherona Dhunraj is responsible for taking care of 31 large King and Gentoo penguins, including Zeus, Gummy and Lulu, at Mall of the Emirates

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Our Working Wonders of the UAE series takes you to some of the country's most recognisable destinations to uncover the daily duties of the talented employees working there

Working with snow-loving birds in one of the world’s hottest countries has to be among the more unusual career roles out there.

As a senior animal care specialist at Ski Dubai, Sherona Dhunraj looks forward to every shift.

She focuses on animal behaviour and welfare at the UAE's Ski Dubai. However, the South African's route wasn't entirely straightforward.

Ms Dhunraj, 35, who holds a university degree in forensic psychology, briefly worked in police profiling and then as a human resources administrator before following her true passion.

While working as an animal behaviourist at Durban Aquarium, uShaka Sea World, in 2019. she spotted a vacancy for a penguin trainer at Ski Dubai.

Now she counts 31 large King and Gentoo penguins, including Zeus, Gummy, Hercules, Myone, Lulu, Bubbles, Athena, and “super smart” Toby, among her colleagues at the Mall of the Emirates indoor ski resort.

Ms Dhunraj revealed to The National details of her job, including guest encounters with the penguins that she says she misses when off-duty.

What led you to Ski Dubai?

I've been in the animal field for 15 years – something that I have always wanted to do.

I grew up in Durban and was always into nature, especially the ocean. I would pet an ant if it let me.

My passion is in animal behaviour and I used to work with dolphins and seals in South Africa.

I followed Ski Dubai on social media as it is the only place in the world that trained penguins for guest encounters and trained them to know their names and discriminate between different shapes … this was fascinating. When I saw the vacancy, I applied immediately.

Now I'm a senior animal care specialist, so a bit more responsibility. Overall, I maintain the animal behaviour management programme.

What education did you need?

I used to work in forensic psychology and one day I just decided I had to follow my dreams. So I left my office job in human resources to volunteer at uShaka Sea World in Durban, and my career in animal training began.

My background in psychology is valuable when working with animals. Another important skill is experience in animal training, as much of the knowledge gained is through actually working with animals.

The theory is helpful, of course, but hands-on experience is vital. Passion is also important.

What challenges are there?

Animals don't speak which makes it harder to communicate with them, but it's also what makes it fun. With experience, you can connect with them in more ways than just talking.

We do husbandry training and they are involved in their medical care. For example, they need to be trained to stand still to take an X-ray, or to administer eyedrops.

We have 10 King penguins and 21 Gentoos and they are trained to follow hand cues. One of the first things we train them in is their names.

If you look at them, you wouldn't think each penguin has its own personality. I realised each one is different and has its own likes and dislikes; that's what first drew me to penguins.

You can read the body language by spending time with them.

Any special techniques?

We call it successive approximation – basically, it’s baby steps.

Every few months, we trim the penguins' nails. To do this, you get the nail clipper and make the sound next to him so he can get used to it.

Another thing I've learnt is if you clip pasta, it sounds like nail clipping. So you clip the pasta where he can hear and you give him a fish, so he associates the sound with food.

What does a typical day involve?

The morning shift consists of checking on each penguin and making sure they are all healthy.

We also prepare the fish for each penguin's diet since the amount is different for each. Right now they are moulting, so they eat a bit more.

The Kings are eating about 2kg of fish a day, and the Gentoos around 500g.

We then weigh the penguins and give them each a vitamin.

They swim after that and our job is to clean the areas where they sleep.

We then get ready for our guest encounters and this will continue throughout the day.

In between there are training sessions, play sessions and enrichment sessions, coupled with thorough record-keeping of every session completed with each penguin.

This helps us to ensure that each penguin is in good health and that each trainer is aware of the training progress of each bird.

What is it about penguins you like?

What I love is that each one is unique and every day is different, they keep me on my toes.

You need to notice anything that seems a bit off or unusual.

It's surprising to learn that many people don't think you can train a penguin to know their names but here is the proof.

The funny thing is people think that if you work with animals, you work less with people. But you need your team working together to take care of those animals. Penguins also teach you things … like patience.

What are the penguins’ ‘duties’ at Ski Dubai?

If they are not taking part in encounters, which are shared by them all, they usually do whatever they want.

Not all penguins do encounters every day and we work on a rotating shift system with five training teams. Each team is assigned 4 to 5 penguins they're responsible for.

Since they are trained to recall – which is their name – it gives an indication should a penguin choose not to participate.

That will be recorded and it's our job to find out the reason behind it.

Environmental enrichment is an important part of animal care and welfare and every day we try to stimulate their minds and bodies as part of their daily activities.

We also have a penguin 'march' presentation four times a day which is free time or play time for them.

What are your favourite parts of the job?

I love training. If I'm doing something new with a penguin, like a new behaviour and I see them get it, there's a moment when you can see them thinking sometimes.

One of the best moments is the penguin encounters, especially the kids. When you encounter that animal, you have a connection.

It's the grown-ups also, the older people; maybe they're not really that into animals, they just came here for the kids, and when you make an impact on them it's like, “Wow, I made a difference”.

You get some people who are scared of penguins. By the end of the encounter, they're not scared any more.

Updated: November 10, 2023, 11:58 AM