The Penguin Post has learned that after a much anticipated wait Topeka Zoo patrons will finally get their chance to dive into the world of penguins when the Penguin Plunge opens Thursday. A grand opening ceremony is scheduled for 9:45 a.m. for the temporary exhibit of six African penguins in a replica of their South African beach habitat. The exhibit, which is housed in a building the presenting sponsor, KBS Constructors, erected specifically for it inside the Security Benefit Pavilion, is free with regular paid admission to the zoo, which will stay open until 8 p.m. Thursday to accommodate first-day visitors.
Special activities are planned for evening patrons. Zoo director Brendan Wiley said, “People are ready to go in and enjoy the experience,” which includes a 2,000-gallon pool with a glass wall through which people can watch the penguins “fly” beneath the water. The penguins are on loan from the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Neb. Other aspects of the exhibit include educational stations that tell visitors about the 17 species of penguins worldwide and threats to their populations, such as overfishing, oil spills and harvesting of guano, which destroys nesting sites. Dispensing such information, Wiley said, helps the zoo fulfill its mission statement to “enrich the community through wildlife conservation and education.” Based on response from other places the Penguin Plunge has visited, the drawing power of the nearly 2-foot-tall birds is huge and could help the zoo toward an attendance goal it has set in its strategic plan. That document calls for roughly 175,000 guests to visit the zoo this year, an increase of 15 percent from 2011, and a step toward the goal of drawing more than 250,000 annual visits by the end of 2015. That is twice the current population of Topeka, said Wiley, or every four years a million opportunities to advance the zoo’s wildlife conservation and education efforts. Achieving that goal will mean continued maintenance of current exhibits, introduction of new ones and temporary ones, such as Penguin Plunge, which draws new visitors and rewards regular ones. “One of the things we’re focusing on is giving people more and more reasons to come back,” Wiley said. On Thursday, gates to the zoo will open, as usual, at 9 a.m. After opening comments at 9:45 a.m., Stephanie Tucker’s second-grade class at North Fairview Elementary School will be introduced. Those Seaman Unified School District 345 pupils raised nearly $1,000 in a Pennies for Penguins Coin Drive that helped generate the money needed to book the Penguin Plunge exhibit. Cair Paravel Latin School second-graders also will attend to perform a penguin song and dance before the 10:10 a.m. ribbon-cutting and the opening of Penguin Plunge, which is slated to be at the zoo until September. There will be a free penguin education program inside the exhibit at 11:30 a.m. Evening activities include a free “Make and Take” penguin craft project sponsored by Scrapbooks Etc. and given to the first 200 people entering the zoo after 5 p.m.