Because, some days, you just need to hang out with a Penguin

My tiny family and I decided to congratulate our progress in Christmas decor with a trip to the zoo yesterday, in Baltimore. I wanted to try the “close encounters with penguins” program the zoo has set up for educational purposes. The Baltimore Zoo has a huge amount of African Penguins, also known as jackass penguins. The species acquired this nickname from their deep hee-haw bellow, similar to a mule’s. Although penguins are a very social species of animal, that doesn’t always equate to “comfortable with humans“.
The Baltimore Zoo created special “Animal Ambassadors” from animals that have imprinted with and feel comfortable with human beings. In penguins terms these are penguins that don’t freak out around humans, rather they show a curiosity and almost flirtatious behavior with mankind. We met a pack of about six of these: Tails, Peach, Hope, Lilly, Dawn, and Winnie.

Winnie took an immediate shine to your humble correspondent, and came over to say hello at close range.

We were told that the younger trio of Ambassador penguins, Hope, Dawn and Lilly (they are all female to prevent some obvious problems) were still quite nippy as they were newer to interacting with humanity. Winnie, Peach and (usually) Tails were old hands with humans, and enjoyed interacting with them. Tails was in the middle of a catastrophic molt, which is a period where all feathers on the penguin fall off all at once and are replaced by new ones. During this time the penguin can’t swim and feels a little grumpy and vulnerable, which is how Tails approached us during our visit.

Far from being the nervous nippers they were characterized to be, Lilly, Dawn and Hope were surprisingly gentle and inquisitive.  Like any avian with shiny objects, Hope was attracted to my watch and wrangled with my hands trying to get it in her beak.

Most penguins are shy about humans, but don’t dislike them, especially when they are fed regularly by them. These penguins exhibited imprinting behaviors– attempting to preen non-existent feathers on human hands, nuzzling, and pecking (gently) at the humans, all very friendly.

Winnie is the most photogenic ambassador and a shameless, scene-stealing ham.

Poor Tails having a bad feather day. In the middle of a catastrophic moult, growing new feathers and feeling a little grumpy and vulnerable.

I don’t know much about penguins other than what the public perception might be from circuses, zoos, Happy Feet 1 and the Madagascar mmove. So it was a pleasant surprise (courtesy of Drey) to spend some time with the real item. If you haven’t tried out the Penguin encounters program at the Baltimore Zoo, it’s worth the time and money (about 45 USD a person).


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