10 Penguins Waddle To Nebraska

Two Humboldt penguins will dive into their new outdoor habitat at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo on Thursday morning. Lannie, 3, and Hugo, 2, are the first of 10 expected to call the zoo home. Three more male penguins are to join them next month, and five females penguins will arrive in the spring, said zoo Executive Director John Chapo. All 10 are genetically diverse, ensuring their offspring will help replenish the threatened species, Chapo said. The Lincoln Children’s Zoo is one of 16 zoos in the country chosen to care for the Humboldt penguin — the rarest penguin species. While the penguins will get the attention in the final days of the zoo’s season, the new habitat is definitely a showstopper. Chapo jokingly refers to it as a “penguin palace” — and said that by comparison to other penguin facilities in the U.S., it truly is, with its state-of-the-art pools and filtration system. The Humboldt Penguin Habitat is where the harbor seal exhibit was, in the center of the zoo.

The 45,000-gallon outdoor pool has been renovated, painted and equipped with a water filtration system. A rock island with two over-the-water bridges will let the penguins swim the entire pool, as well as get out and sun themselves. The zoo replaced the wooden deck around the pool with a stone patio. A 4-foot-tall clear glass partition separates penguins from visitors, allowing for unobstructed viewing for small children and people using wheelchairs or strollers. The new viewing area is twice the size it was for the seals. A 10-foot-tall photograph mural of penguins in their natural habitat provides a backdrop. The photo was shot off the coast of Chile by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore of Lincoln. Large rocks in the back of the exhibit will serve as a nesting area for the birds.

Eventually, the zoo will put in a shade screen for visitors, and a penguin camera so visitors can watch the birds via the Internet. “The exhibit is designed for very up-close encounters and discovery of the penguins,” Chapo said. It also is designed to make the penguins extremely comfortable to thrive and reproduce, he said. Unlike other penguin species, the Humboldt penguin, which is native to the coasts of Peru and Chile, prefers a warmer climate. So in winter, when the zoo is closed for the season, the penguins will move into the new Hugo and Thelma Aspegren Conservation Center. The center has a 3-foot-deep, 4,655-gallon indoor pool, with the same filtration system, as well as a holding area and a deck for zookeepers to train the birds. The center features skylights for natural lighting, heating and air conditioning. Initially, the zoo expected the penguins to arrive during the summer, but because they are coming from zoos all over the country (for the genetic diversity), logistics delayed their arrival. “The goal here is to breed. We are a conservation facility and we are honored to be selected to breed and care for the species,” Chapo said. Humboldt penguins can breed at any time of the year. Females lay as many as three eggs at a time. The males and females take turns keeping the eggs warm until they hatch — in about 40 days. The young will stay with their parents until they turn 1, and will then be moved to other zoos to continue conservancy efforts, Chapo said. “It’s a win-win situation. The penguins are a wonderful species for children to enjoy, and great species for conservation efforts.”  The $300,000 exhibit was paid for with a $150,000 grant from the Lancaster County Board’s Visitors Improvement Fund, gifts from the Hugo and Thelma Aspegren Charitable Trust and the WRK Family Foundation, and other local donors.

Additional funding is being sought to support the penguins’ care and dietary needs. People can make donations by adopting a penguin or becoming a “penguin parent” at www.lincolnzoo.org.

Hugo swims under water in his temporary holding pool at the Lincoln Children's Zoo on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010. He is on of 10 Humboldt penguins to eventually call the zoo home.

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