Minnesota Penguins Waddle Back

The Penguin Post has learned that a court decision to let the Minnesota Zoo reopen on Sunday—after two days closed as part of the state government shutdown—might have come later than zoo staff would have liked, but was welcomed none the less. But it still came in time for the 18 tuxedoed birds set to waddle out in front of the public this weekend. The zoo’s new Penguins of the African Coast exhibit opens Saturday, as scheduled. “There’s been a lot of anticipation building up to this,” said zookeeper Cale Nordmeyer, who works with the penguins. Construction on the exhibit began in the fall. Eighteen African penguins are part of the 2,000-square-foot exhibit, which is modeled after their natural habitat of Boulders Beach in South Africa. It’s one of four projects in the $20 million first phase of the Heart of the Zoo renovations; the others were a new entrance, the Target Learning Center and the Cargill Environmental Education Center. The exhibit is part of a mission to increase the “density and intensity” of exhibits for zoo visitors, zoo Director Lee Ehmke said in a news release. Visitors will be able to get right next to the glass and see the birds underwater and above water, face to face. “They’re very inquisitive,” Nordmeyer said. “They want to see what you’re doing.” Their “cuteness factor” and, more recently, Hollywood publicity, make penguins a popular zoo feature, Nordmeyer said. He and other zookeepers hope they can use that popularity to get people to learn more about penguins, he said, especially this breed, which is different from the more familiar Antarctic varieties. The nine male and nine female African penguins are part of a population that lives in a warmer, coastal climate, and a population of penguins that is in decline in the wild. Eventually, the 18 birds will breed in the exhibit, Nordmeyer said. To facilitate breeding, nesting areas were built into the habitat, which is something not all penguin exhibits have, Nordmeyer said. The exhibit is also much bigger than most would be for 18 penguins, he said. And because it’s indoors, it keeps the birds out of humidity and away from mosquitos, which can cause health problems. The exhibit also has microphones in it so viewers can hear the penguins’ donkey-like calls and daily narrated feedings through speakers outside the glass; the penguins are fed by hand twice a day. While most of the zookeepers—including those for the penguins—were still employed during the two shutdown days, the zoo still lost out on two days of visitors and revenue. MinnPost.com’s Joe Kimball reported that 8,300 people visited the zoo July 3-4, which is lower than past Sunday/Monday days of the July 4 weekend. But it was still a good number in Ehmke’s eyes, considering many people probably thought the zoo still was closed, Ehmke said in the MinnPost article. Nordmeyer, who was one of the zookeepers laid off for the first two days of July, said he’s glad the exhibit can open so people can get to know the penguins—though maybe not quite as well as he does.“I love … their individualness,” Nordmeyer said. “Their personalities are night and day from each other.”

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