Penguins and people

My father-in-law likes to say he took his family to the zoo so the animals could see his kids. I remembered that yesterday at our new exhibit: The penguins went public just a few days ago, and they seem to find their human spectators riveting.

A few were in the water; most were on the rocks. This pair totally cracked me up. The exhibit was mobbed for most of the day, with kids clambering on boulders and smudging the glass to go nose-to-beak with the birds. But around noon, a sudden lull made it possible for ME to climb up there and do that.

The few swimmers were no less intrigued. Children massed at the viewing window, giggling and dancing and grabbing at the glass as penguins swept past, so much more graceful underwater than on land. Black-and-white heads swiveled; beaks pointed inquisitively toward the excited crowd. A little girl’s fingers brushed the patch of glass near a penguin’s passing flipper, as if to shake hands. A slightly larger girl jumped up and down several times, exclaiming “Cute!” each time she landed.  I still haven’t heard the “jackass”-style braying we were told to expect, but I’m sure that mating call will come once they settle in.










Lucky for me, I was scheduled for a half-hour at the new penguin interpretation booth, which you see above. It’s stationed by one of the exhibit’s two entrances and stocked with “artifacts” — a king penguin egg (much larger than any an African penguin would lay); a jar of tiny square feathers and a tupperware of long, slender black-and-white chicken feathers for comparison; a folding ruler to show the height of varying penguin species; and containers of sardines, a nutritious dietary staple. Eager though visitors were to go in and see the real thing, quite a few stopped to hear snippets from our fact sheets and play with the giant egg. My one unmet goal for the day was to photograph a swimming penguin without visual obstruction or blur — maybe after the crowds get a bit thinner. And that could take awhile.


Psyched for penguins

Now that the zoo can stay open despite a government shutdown, I can let myself get excited about African penguins! The new exhibit opens to the public Saturday, and all volunteers completed an hourlong shift of “penguin training” on their regularly scheduled day last month. An hour before the zoo opened for the day, we gathered in our new lounge, in a recently constructed wing that includes the zoo’s new entrance and the penguins’ holding area. We saw a few birds in holding, but most of the 18 were already on exhibit — a seven-foot-deep pool with a backdrop of boulders (much like our sea-otter exhibit) on the site of our old indoor theater. It was hard to take many photos while a zookeeper showered us with fun facts, so I’m indebted to fellow volunteer Sue Weaver for catching and sharing this view:

These are not the flightless waterfowl we remember from “March of the Penguins.” Those were emperor penguins, largest of the 17 species, as big as a human kindergartner and native to icy Antarctica. These are midsized penguins, standing about two feet tall and weighing five to nine pounds, and native to the southwestern tip of coastal Africa. It took my mind awhile to reconcile warmer weather with penguins, but it turns out they’re all over the Southern Hemisphere. Our exhibit is modeled after the Boulders Beach tourist area near Cape Town, South Africa, where a mating pair arrived in 1985 and spawned a colony now exceeding 2,000 birds. Still an endangered species, they’re rebounding after a 50-year, 80 percent plunge in population that started in the early 20th century. Their colonies are no longer raided for eggs or fertilizer (who knew penguin droppings could be useful to humans?), but fisheries and oil spills still affect their access to food and clean water.

During my few precious minutes at the exhibit, I didn’t hear any of the donkeylike mating-call “braying” that gives these birds the nickname “jackass penguins” — just an occasional low-pitched trilling vocalization as they massed on the boulders or swam past us behind glass. Back in the volunteer lounge, we watched a video about the new “artifacts” available for volunteers to discuss at the penguin interpretation booth. I’m sure my favorite will be the glass-encased feather, which we all got a chance to examine and pass around. Feathers on a penguin are like shingles on a roof: surprisingly small and rigid, overlapping each other for maximum protection, with about 70 feathers per square inch. About once a year — in the wild, around mating season — all the feathers are shed in a dramatic multi-week molt, replaced by tougher new feathers, while the penguin stays on land, looking scruffy and fasting. This will play out a little differently in captivity, and I can’t wait to watch it, photograph it, talk about it, write more about it. Soon.

The shutdown and the “great good place”

Well, it happened. Minnesota’s governor and Legislature deadlocked over the state budget, time officially ran out at midnight, a government shutdown has taken effect, and I’m looking back at my partial day spent at the zoo yesterday — its last day open until further notice — without knowing when I’ll be allowed to go back. (A happy update: Two days later, a judge has ruled that the zoo may reopen right away, Sunday morning. Although it’s a state agency, 70 percent of its revenue comes from private sources like admissions and donations — enough to keep it afloat during the peak season.) A few core staffers were on the job during the two days of closure to care for the animals and keep the facility secure.

Being there on the last day pre-shutdown felt odd for another reason: It was about 50 degrees warmer than last Thursday, when temps hovered in the mid-50s and I shivered at the upper information booth with a zoo jacket buttoned up to my throat. But even in yesterday’s suffocating heat and humidity, I managed to spend an hour out at Grizzly Coast without melting, and here’s some of the cuteness I witnessed.

Volunteers are pretty sure this is Jasper, who likes to show off at the sea-otter viewing window (there’s some minor aggression among the three males, so we haven’t been seeing them all out together). Fellow volunteer Darlene and I ventured out into nature’s furnace after lunch; she bravely continued onward along the Northern Trail, while I settled into this shady cave and brought out the super-soft otter pelt for guests to touch. The hand in this photo belongs to fellow volunteer Ruth, who came along in time for an otter-training-and-enrichment session conducted by zookeepers. By then, I was ready to re-enter the wonderful world of air conditioning. But the bears were SO CLOSE, and so I wandered a little farther with Ruth instead, half-hoping to see something like this.

Sadie, the grizzly on the left, is our lone girl bear. I’ve seen her in the pool just once or twice in the three years she’s lived here, and I’ve never seen her roughhousing. But yesterday the heat drew her into the water, and it was a joy to watch her splashing around with Haines. Despite the fearsome fang near her eye at right, he seemed to play with Sadie so much more gently than he does with fellow boy bear Kenai.

I’ve been a little emotional about this shutdown; the political party-line divisions are scarily deep, and my husband (a state employee, but not for the zoo) is on indefinite layoff until this gets resolved. The threat of closure gave me a chance to ponder what makes the zoo so special to me; I love animals, of course, but my feelings for other zoos and aquariums are much more superficial. I thought of the zoo the first time I read about “third places” — happy hangouts and gathering spots beyond homes or workplaces, a concept explored in “The Great Good Place” by Ray Oldenburg. Volunteers have a unique relationship with the zoo as a third place: Unlike visitors and employees, we sidestep the issues of payment and necessity. Although we commit to 16 or 32 hours a month, give or take, on a particular day of the week, we can also pop in anytime, and although we follow a schedule on our chosen day, we range widely across the zoo, sampling everything in half-hour increments, conversing freely, bonding with guests and other volunteers, untethered from the worries and stresses that come with even the best “real” paying job (like the one I have the rest of the week). So while the government shutdown wears on, it’s good to know my favorite third place is still available to me.