Up Close and Personal with a Penguin

September 1, 2010

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One of the Shedd Aquarium's Magellanic penguins (WBEZ/Samuel Vega)

Visitors to Chicago's Shedd Aquarium can get eye-to-eye with creatures that stand knee-high and look tuxedoed. They're penguins, of course. And trainers say the Penguin Encounter that started recently lets the public help train the animals.

KALSNES: So I'm washing my hands before I meet the penguins.

The next step is putting on some big rubber boots and stepping into a wet tray, to clean them.

KALSNES: I feel like a kid splashing in puddles.

When you're about to enter a penguin's house, this is how you avoid giving them germs.

NAT: So you can take a seat on any of the orange bench spaces.

The Encounter program allows groups of 10 to see a few Magellanic  penguins with trainers and get a photo taken.

Ken Ramirez, the Shedd's vice president of animal collections and training, says he hopes that meeting a penguin will inspire participants to become better stewards of the environment.

This type of penguin made the World Wildlife Fund's list of the world's threatened species.

RAMIREZ: When people get a chance to see an animal up close, breath that air that it breaths, especially when they get to touch one, their connection to that animal is so much stronger.

But before that connection is made, there are some ground rules. This is a media preview. So Ramirez cautions people to keep cameras and notebooks away.

RAMIREZ: Also please never reach down to touch a bird unless we tell you to. And probably the most important thing, penguins are unique in that they in the wild can get predators from every direction. From sea they've got killer whales and sharks, on land they've got wolves and coyotes, from the air, they've got eagles and other birds of prey, so fast movements, quick movements coming from behind them can startle them.
REPORTER: How strong is the beak?
RAMIREZ: The beak is extremely strong. It's the kind of bite that would make a people cry, it will make a grown man cry.
REPORTER: That's good to know.

At first, the birds stay in the trainers' laps. Soon, hey relax enough to crane their heads and stare.

RAMIREZ: Look at how curious they are. They have an excellent sense of hearing. So as they hear that clicking of the camera, they certainly are intrigued by it.

Just like the public, the reporters get a chance to touch the penguins.

TRAINER: See how smooth it feels?
KALSNES: Yeah, it doesn't feel anything like I would have expected. Somebody said like vinyl, it does feel vinyl. It's soft like vinyl. I would love to touch the wing.
TRAINER: Sure.
KALSNES: Ah, oooh. It feels so smooth. It's beautiful.
RAMIREZ: One of the great things about the Encounter program is it gets them really used to strangers.

Now, that trait wouldn't be so handy for penguins, in the wild. But these birds were hatched and raised here at the Shedd. They've known the trainers all their lives.

Ramirez says this is where the public actually helps with training. When participants make sudden movements, the penguins hide behind the trainers. Ramirez says this reinforces trust in the trainers. And it makes it easier for people who aren't around the birds as often, like researchers, to work with the penguins.

RAMIREZ: In the wild, they're constantly stimulated by predators or searching for food, building a nest, we provide all of that for them here, and so our training program really allows them to get mental stimulation and physical exercise, so this is a good opportunity for that.

These particular penguins don't come from frigid conditions. They're from southern South America. Even so, they get overheated. They like it when they get sprayed with water bottles. A reporter gives it a try:

One of the penguins stands on the floor and shakes out its wings. Then the birds head back with their trainers to go for a swim.