GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Magellanic penguin at the John Ball Zoo is OK after undergoing an endoscopy to retrieve a dime that the bird had mistakenly swallowed.

Veterinarian Ryan Colburn said the team was conducting its annual physical exams on the zoo’s penguins when they discovered the coin. He suspects the penguin mistook the coin for a silver piece of fish, a common part of their diet.

“When we do our routine checkups for our penguins, we often use a metal detector to screen them, just to make sure that they haven’t swallowed anything they shouldn’t,” Colburn told News 8. “And interestingly, we got a beep when we were looking at Picchu. So, that led us to take an X-ray and we identified that she had swallowed a coin.”

Dr. Alex McFarland performed an endoscopy and was able to retrieve the coin.

“In this case, we were able to spot the coin and remove it very quickly. The actual procedure with the camera in place was only about five to 10 minutes,” Colburn said.

The John Ball Zoo team regularly inspects animal habitats to make sure outside items don’t threaten the animals, especially in open-air habitats like the penguins’ inside the Van Andel Living Shores Aquarium. Still, accidents happen.

“This isn’t the first time. Interestingly, when I was a pre-veterinary student I actually came and assisted the veterinarian at the time with a coin retrieval,” he said. “However, that was a long time ago, and that’s the only other one that we know of.”

While visitors become well-versed with the exhibits, John Ball Zoo has several facilities behind the scenes to house animals, specifically for ones who need extra medical attention. Thankfully, Picchu had no issues with recovery and was able to join her fellow penguins back in the main habitat later that day.

“We have a space at our animal hospital that if for some reason she needed a period of recuperation, we could use space there,” Colburn said. “And we also have spaces behind the scenes at the aquarium so that if we need a bird to have a break from the rest of the group for any reason, we can do that.”


Colburn has always felt a connection to an animal and even to John Ball Zoo. The West Michigan native attended Grand Rapids Public’s sixth grade “Zoo School” program and knew that he wanted to become a veterinarian even as a young child.

John Ball Zoo veterinarian Ryan Colburn (Matt Jaworowski/WOOD TV8)

“I actually decided that I wanted to be a veterinarian. A lot of people do. So, as a child in fourth grade, I already had my sights set on that. … But I decided that I really wanted to be involved with conservation and caring for a variety of different species,” Colburn said. “I started working in emergency with dogs and cats, and when this position became available, I was really excited to come to the zoo.”

And while it’s a dream job, it comes with a lot of work. Colburn, McFarland and their team care for more than 2,000 animals year-round.

Things have slowed down at the zoo now that it is closed for the winter, but the work for the vet team remains steady.

“The most common thing that happens here at the zoo is a routine exam. Every animal here is scheduled either every year or every other year where we are performing those, doing blood work, making sure everything looks OK. And as they get older or as things go wrong, we may do (them more often),” he said.

While checkups take up most of their time, Colburn and McFarland are always on call in case of emergencies.

“With over 2,000 animals, that can happen at any time,” he said.