hen we were kids, my sister collected penguins. Plush penguins, ceramic penguins, penguins wearing knit hats and scarves, penguins ice skating and more. Now even the most hardcore penguin enthusiasts can indulge their obsession with the Newport Aquarium’s Penguin Encounters — a behind-the-scenes visit with African Blackfooted penguins. Nearly 50,000 people have already met the penguins during the first few years of the program.
It’s understandable why so many people love penguins. They’re easy to anthropomorphize with their short legs, waddling bodies, tuxedo-like plumage and appendages that resemble arms more than wings.
“It’s hard not to like a penguin, you can’t not smile when you see one,” says Ric Urban, the Newport Aquarium’s curator of birds and mammals. “Once we grab people’s attention with how cute they are, we throw in the conservation education. If you walk in here and meet these penguins, you’ll walk out asking, ‘What can I do?’ ”
I certainly did. When I stepped into the penguin enclosure, nine knee-high black-and-white bodies immediately flocked around Urban, who hand-fed many of the birds as chicks. After a little while, they began to check me out, too, raising their beaks in the air to get a good look. Urban reached down, scooped up one named Green Bean and held her out for me to pet. I nearly melted.
Urban says that visitors are often surprised to learn that not all penguins require snow and ice. “About two-thirds are warm-weather species,” he says, “and only three species nest on Antarctica.” African penguins are the logical animal ambassadors for the aquarium since they prefer temperatures between 40 and 100 degrees.
In addition to behind-the-scenes encounters, biologist handlers regularly take the African penguins out into the public. The birds have made television appearances and were even represented in the Reds’ opening day parade. Aquarium staff works hard to ensure the penguins are kept safe and healthy.
“The birds are on a preventative health maintenance program, developed by biologists at the aquarium with our veterinary staff,” Urban says. They have strict travel guidelines, and he stresses that humans rarely transmit illnesses to birds and vice-versa.
If education is the aquarium’s goal, they have their work cut out for them. Popular culture is rife with penguin myths, stretching all the way back to the 1950s with the cartoon “Chilly Willy,” a penguin whose friend was a polar bear. You’d think we’d have learned by now, but in a popular 2008 television commercial, a penguin party is interrupted by some fierce polar bears and a baby penguin restores order by offering a young bear a Coca-Cola.
“One of my biggest pet peeves is that commercial,” Urban says. “No. 1, polar bears and penguins live on opposite ends of the world, and No. 2, they don’t drink Coke.”
Urban’s affable sense of humor balances his serious dedication to the penguins he nurtures. He’s been in the field of animal biology for more than 30 years, eight at the Newport Aquarium where he oversees Penguin Palooza — the second most diverse collection of cold-weather penguins in the country. He started Newport’s Penguin Encounters, the first experience of its kind in the country.
“We launched the program in 2007 with just three animals,” he says. “We created this opportunity to get up close and personal with them. Up to 12 people at a time sit down, talk to a biologist for about 30 minutes, and possibly touch a penguin. It’s a great experience.” Others have sought Urban’s advice on building similar programs at their own institutions.
Proceeds from Penguin Encounters ticket sales benefit penguin conservation through the aquarium’s WAVE Foundation. WAVE sends about $10,000 each year to the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds to aid the rescue and rehabilitation of orphaned or oiled African penguins.
“The public only hears about the big oil spills, but there are small ones all the time,” Urban says. “For instance, you’ll hear about 80 to 100 birds on an island that need help.”
The aquarium also books private penguin encounters. Right before my visit, a man proposed to his girlfriend surrounded by the adorable birds, supervised by aquarium employees Hannah Burke, a recent zoology graduate from Ohio State University, and Kaitlyn Whisman, a current University of Cincinnati animal biology student.
“We really enjoy working here, especially the proposals,” Burke says. “Everyone who works here for awhile has their favorite bird.”
“The penguins definitely have their own personalities,” Whisman says.
“Sandy and Speckles, the babies, act like 2-year-olds,” Burke says. “They love to be the center of attention. When the guy got down on one knee, he had one penguin on each side of him.”
Now what woman could say no to that? ©
PENGUIN ENCOUNTERS at Newport Aquarium (Newport on the Levee) tickets are $25, or $20 for annual aquarium passholders. For more information, visit www.newportaquarium.com.