Real Pittsburgh Penguin Stars At Banquet

Erin Estell will attend a Valentine-themed dinner Feb. 12 at Latrobe Country Club with Simon, who adores her. In fact, the way Simon sees it, they’re some kind of soul mates. But, alas for Simon, he can never speak of his love for his special lady, though he shows it, and the relationship has no real future. It’s not just because he’s much younger than she is or because he’s so short. It’s because Simon is a penguin. He’s a resident of the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, and Ms. Estell is his trainer. She also is the assistant director/manager of the Helen M. Schmidt Flitezone Theater, part of the aviary. They will be the featured guests at Action For Animals Humane Society’s annual Love Is In The Air fundraising banquet, which begins at 6 p.m. “Each of our penguins has his own personality and favorite trainer, but Simon likes me best,” Ms. Estell said of the bird’s affection for her. That’s the kind of relationship that’s behind every year’s dinner theme — the bond between humans and animals. AFA Treasurer Laura Guskiewicz of Unity, who organized this fourth annual event, can relate to that bond, she said, through her own experience with Chloe, a13-year-old dog that she adopted in 2001 from the shelter in Derry Township. “That bond is so strong,” she said. “Chloe is my best buddy. When I come home, she is always there waiting for me.” Past speakers have shared their own stories of that special bond. Last year’s guest was Nadine M. Rosin of Tucson, Ariz., who wrote “The Healing Art of Pet Parenthood,” a book that chronicles the journey she took with her beloved dog, who had cancer. Ms. Estell will speak about her work with Simon, a 5-year-old African penguin who was hatched at the Baltimore Zoo and hand-raised at the aviary in Pittsburgh. She takes him whenever she needs a penguin for an educational program. He rides in a dog kennel in a van. Simon also is the penguin selected to host Penguin Connection, when people can learn everything they want to know about the flightless birds and interact with them. Sometimes, people in smaller groups are permitted to touch them. The Helen M. Schmidt Flitezone Theater is expected to be finished in early September and open in late fall. Ms. Estell will direct all activities in the theater, along with managing of its construction. She has experience training birds of prey, mammals and reptiles. Bonding is important in training animals, and Ms. Estell combines that with natural behaviors that respond to positive reinforcement, such as giving a treat. She said penguins are difficult to train, however, because they are not strongly motivated by food because they don’t have to eat on a specific schedule. “The penguins are a huge hit at the aviary,” she said. “I like doing these sorts of things, and I like getting the word out about the aviary and the penguins and how easy is it for us to do things to help wildlife. “We have a common ground with AFA because the aviary takes care of animals so that people can appreciate them, and AFA deals with other types of animals. If you love your pets, it’s not a big jump to love wild animals. People connect to wildlife by building relationships with their domestic animals. We are both animal lovers.” Wildlife experts have particular concerns about penguins, which are considered an endangered species. According to Ms. Estell, there were about a million in the early 1900s, and now there are less than 60,000. “We can do things very easily to protect them, like keep our oceans clean,” she said. “The easiest way to help out is to carefully consume fish. There is going to be a huge fish crisis within the next 50 years. It’s hard to believe, but our oceans could be empty of fish.” Ms. Estell will use fish cards to help show which fish to avoid when shopping because of the way they are fished or because of their high mercury levels. “Some of them are fished in a way that is harmful to the ocean,” she explained. Ms. Guskiewicz expects Simon to be a big hit at the dinner. “It’s not often that you get to see a penguin up close,” she said. “I hope we get a big crowd this year.” Last year, Love Is in the Air raised about $3,500. Ms Guskiewicz is hoping for at least $4,500 from this one. The Feb. 12 event will begin at 6 p.m. with hors d’oeuvres and desserts and a silent auction. Ms. Estell and Simon will take the stage at 7:30. Tickets are $50 and children also welcome. For more details, or an official invitation, call Ms. Guskiewicz, 724-850-8802.

Erin Estell, of the National Aviary, and a penguin named Simon.

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