King Tut Will Retire After 64 Years as Zoo Spokesfowl

Times Staff Writer

He took the San Diego Zoo under his wing in 1925. Later this month--in what will be fowl news to many--he will retire

King Tut is stepping down. Beginning Friday, the official greeter and trademark of the San Diego Zoo, an aging, salmon-colored cockatoo, will spend one last week on his perch at the zoo’s entrance, chirping hello to visitors. Then, on June 16, he’ll cackle farewell.

“He is so special,” said Jerry Gallenberger, keeper of the cockatoo for almost 20 years. “This guy has so much love and personality for a bird. People just love him.”

So many people, in fact, that June 9 through June 16 are “King Tut Appreciation Days” at the zoo.


Waiting in the wings as Tut’s official replacement is Teddy, another salmon-colored cockatoo. The 5-year-old bird was donated to the zoo by Sharon Higgins, a private bird keeper.

Greeted Famous Visitors

For 64 years, the Singapore-born King Tut has greeted more than 100 million visitors at the zoo’s entrance. From his open perch near the flamingo park, he has fluffed his feathers for U. S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, Japanese Emperor Hirohito and others who have visited the 3,944-animal zoo.

The bird has appeared on several TV shows, been featured in performances at the Old Globe Theatre and Starlight Opera, and starred in many documentaries about the San Diego Zoo.


“Oh, Tut’s well-known,” said Gallenberger, 44. “All the regulars always want to know if he’s OK when he’s not on his perch in the morning.”

Tut, estimated to be at least 66 years old, has held out against laryngitis. But blindness, bouts of arthritis and old age finally have taken their toll, zoo officials said. Cockatoos can live into their 70s.

“King Tut’s arthritis has progressed to where we can only have him out on warm and dry days,” Wayne Schulenburg, the zoo’s animal care manager for birds, said in a released statement. “Because he’s blind, Tut occasionally gets bumped off his perch by peacocks and other free-ranging birds in the zoo.”

Despite his frailty, Tut continues to live a celebrity’s life, officials said. His keepers prepare personal meals for him of cooked sweet potatoes and carrots, soft fruit and peanuts. The bird has his own personal jar of peanut butter. And he continues to be lavished with attention, from zoo personnel and the public.

Feathered Diplomat

This celebrity status will keep him in the public eye even after he retires. King Tut will become a feathered diplomat for the zoo’s education department, working with tours, school and adult programs, and promotional events, said Jeff Jouett, a zoo spokesman.

Tut, named after the famous Egyptian king, immigrated with keeper Frank Buck from Singapore in 1925. He was sold to a La Mesa couple who collected birds, and who shared him with the zoo. He quickly learned show-biz basics - singing, whistling, talking--and performed at the zoo and other venues.

After years of scattering his talents, the cockatoo in 1951 became the zoo’s own.


Gallenberger and the bird will meet the public from 10 to 11 each morning and from 2 to 3 each afternoon during Tut appreciation week. On his last day, June 16, at 3 p.m., he will get a cockatoo Oscar--a pound cake--as tribute to his decades-long performance.

And, on June 17, King Tut will have a retirement party (second-billed as the annual Rendezvous in the Zoo, a black-tie dinner and dance fund-raiser). Tickets are $250 a plate to raise money for the zoo.